CLEVELAND — The restaurant industry is the second-largest employer in the United States, as well as the second-largest in Ohio. It was the first industry to be shut down in the pandemic, and the last to open up again.
When it went down, the rest of the country came with it.
"You have to go all the way back, all the way, to almost the World Wars or the Great Depression to find anything like what happened here," John Barker, President and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association, says.
Ohio lost 3,000 restaurants in the last year and a half, and looking at today, the ones still standing are barely keeping their balance.
"I should say that I probably was doing my fair share of complaining for three days in a row when I had to be our dishwasher, when I scheduled three different dishwashers and none of them showed," said Lorrie Torres, owner and operator of Mallorca in downtown Cleveland and also the head of the Cleveland Independents restaurant group.
But the Restaurant Association is now giving these establishments something to lean on: Coming later this summer, the employee relief fund will expand to be a permanent fund to continue helping the restaurant industry, still in a time of need.
"The comeback, the complete recovery for this industry, we predict will be deep into 2022," Barker said. "In some cases, [depending on] what your situation is, how much federal or state support to get, it could take all the way to 2023."
Holding on from 14 months in the red, despite the temporary relief funds put in place by Congress. That’s why the Restaurant Association is also lobbying in Washington—with the support of Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman—to bring that money back, too.
"The industry $290 billion in sales, so that was about 10% that was allocated for that money," Barker points out. "As soon as the applications [were] open, [those relief funds were] gone in a blink, so we're asking Congress to replenish that up to about $60 billion."
It's money that will not only put food in our mouths and on employees' tables, but bring life back into our city.
"I think that the more restaurants we have, the more reason people will have to come downtown," Torrres thinks.
Barker adds things can only go up from here.
“You think about the NFL draft, we were able to get that in Cleveland, and how cool that was to have that in our city," he said. "Think about Playhouse Square and getting that going again, and people going back to museums or art galleries and walking through our neighbor[hoods], and restaurants are right in the middle of that, and now we're trying to bring that life back to them."