Joe Bastianich tells us how the American restaurant scene is in much worse shape than the Italian one

Big places and businesses, hence big losses in this phase of the US lockdown. The restaurant and TV man was the protagonist of a debate organised by Ambasciatori del Gusto

14-09-2020
Joe Bastianich. Like everyone in the industry, the

Joe Bastianich. Like everyone in the industry, the Italian-American restaurant entrepreneur, and popular TV figure, is facing the difficult crisis caused by the Covid-19 emergency

The US restaurant scene is literally on its knees, devoured by debts, and will only be able to recover through bankruptcies, layoffs, painful changes of properties. In other words: the big size which in normal times would grant equally big profits, in the current very complicated phase has led to a terrible point of no return: «In this sense the Italian model», more familiar and less entrepreneurial, «is an advantage. You have no idea of the disaster that is looming here in the States». Joe Bastianich was lucid but pessimistic– or better pessimistic in that he was lucid– when a few weeks ago he told us about his experience and that of the industry, in the online meeting promoted by Ambasciatori del Gusto, urged by the questions of Cristina Bowerman, who is the president of AdG; of Paolo Marchi, vice president of the association as well as founder and curator of Identità Golose; and Dominga Cotarella, founder of Intrecci.

The online debate organised by Ambasciatori del Gusto, with Joe Bastianich, Cristina Bowerman, Dominga Cotarella and Paolo Marchi

The online debate organised by Ambasciatori del Gusto, with Joe Bastianich, Cristina Bowerman, Dominga Cotarella and Paolo Marchi

Joe, a very popular TV figure, presented himself like this: «My main activity is waiting tables». In fact – as we all know – he’s a wine producer and restaurant entrepreneur with 25 restaurants in the United States, now stuck because the Covid-19 emergency is shaking the country. He explains: «On the 15th of March we closed all the restaurants: I went in person to fix everything, donate food to the poor, in New York’s darkest hour. Then the situation worsened, because from the Big Apple the issue spread to the entire States. I think of Los Angeles: we first had to close there, then they allowed us to open again, so we hired 120 people again in 3 restaurants, then we worked for 8 days and finally they forced us to close once again. It was very difficult».

Joe now has 1,500 redundant employees and will probably need to cut some branches off his group. Yet while discussing his huge difficulties, he never loses sight of the big picture: «At the same time as the pandemic spread, there was also the Black Lives Matter movement. We could say that the former was “just” a disease, while the latter movement is changing all the balances in the American society». It has brought large protests, «many were good, some were less so, like the one that destroyed one of our restaurants in Los Angeles». For sure, «with this revolution making such deep changes in the US, speaking of restaurants may seem a frivolity. It’s my job, so I won’t say no, but I do so with deference to themes that are much more important, such as social and economic justice».

He explains: «You can no longer work in New York; the same in Los Angeles; in Las Vegas and some other States some restaurants have reopened, but we know how many difficulties the virus brings, these are uncertain situations, we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel». And then: «My restaurants in New York are all closed. Or rather: in two restaurants we’ve placed a few tables outside, but it’s very little, and on top of that here it rains almost every day… The other 15 are closed. Most of all: there’s no opening date, we know nothing, and we can’t make plans. It’s a devastating situation. This is why I say: everything will change, we’ll see a radical change in the US restaurant scene, much bigger than what will happen in Italy».

Marchi points out how surprising the picture he gave is, «the last thing I would have imagined was that the American restaurant scene, made of large groups with dozens of restaurants and an unimaginable size for Italy would have a structural weakness». Bastianich explains: «A restaurant in New York, seating 80 people, has between 80 and 100 employees. In other words, it’s a big machine, with high revenues, but you must work a lot. If everything goes well, it earns more too. Food and beverage here make much more, but the sites are big, the rent is expensive, the staff is large. In normal times, it goes very well. We have an inclination for this kind of business in the States, it’s in our mentality, and it allows us to grow, and do other things too: in my case, for instance, I travel a lot, I’m on television and so on. The system worked. But then something that was not imaginable or foreseeable happened: the Government suddenly told us that, because of Covid-19, we could no longer work. We had to close».

Bastianich with Andrea Ribaldone at Identità Expo

Bastianich with Andrea Ribaldone at Identità Expo

The mechanism collapsed, for the very high costs you’re subject to, «even when in stand-by. The Italian model now has many advantages in such a dramatic situation: the owner of a trattoria seating 40 people, with perhaps 9 employees and a reasonable rent, can have its collaborators on temporary layoff, and perhaps has some money in the bank. They can hold on, wait for a few months, and then open again. Here it’s unthinkable, because we are dealing with gigantic realities that drain our finances even if they are closed. The crisis is very deep: some 30-35% of restaurants are expected not to open again». He adds: «I’m certainly not a fan of Trump. But I quote something he said, terrible, but truthful: the American restaurant industry will recover, but with different owners. There will be takeovers, new capitals, new professionals. And what about us? The crisis is devouring us».

Yet Bastianich has nothing to say against the White House: «Of course it is sad to realise that here in the United States we are politically divided on the use of masks… But the Government is doing what’s possible: printing money, injecting liquidity in the system, they’re very timely with unemployment benefits... I believe these are good decisions. It’s a constant in our history: when institutions chose to make public investments, though increasing public debt, the country has always reacted positively. But the restaurant industry now is literally destroyed. Let’s hope there will be new measures to save what can be saved».

Aside from national measures, did large private corporations come to your help? «The support was based on a very… American model. Companies with lots of liquidity such as banks first of all – told us: “We’ll give you some money but you will have to hire 30 people and prepare 50K meals for the poor each week”. It was useful, it was a success. In our case, for instance, we received the support of Maker's Mark – producers of bourbon – then of American ExpressWells Fargo Bank… They all gave us money in exchange for something, in this case supporting the poor».

In conclusion: «Nothing will ever be like before. But at the end of this emergency there will also be great opportunities. Because a crisis has a Darwinian logic: it hits the weakest». Not necessarily the worst, but that’s another matter.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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