The Big Idea: Light at the End of a Dark Year
A year into the pandemic, the butcher’s bill for restaurants in the US was grim. In 2020 alone, an estimated $240 billion in revenue vanished, nearly 2.5 million restaurant workers lost their jobs and over 100,000 dining establishments closed temporarily or permanently. Perhaps the bleakest stat of all is that, according to a study by the University of California, San Francisco, the most dangerous jobs during the pandemic, outside of health care, have been in the food and agriculture industries, with the risk of dying increasing 39 percent.
Since March 2020, the only “hot new trend” in dining was finding a way to survive. By their nature as businesses built around gathering people in one place, restaurants were caught in an impossible position: City and state authorities had to shut them down to avert a public-health disaster, but then did little to ameliorate the resulting financial pain.
Yet there’s now rightful reason for optimism as vaccination rates climb and the government help restaurants pleaded for finally came through in the form of a $28.6 billion grant package called the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, part of the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress and signed by President Biden. And once it’s safe for indoor service to resume at full capacity, surely people will want to fill those tables as they cast off the shackles of pandemic lockdowns.
In a normal year, we’d use this space to tell you about the best new restaurants around—the kind so filled with creativity and conviviality that you’d gladly hop a plane to dine there if you managed to snag a reservation. But those openings were few and far between in the past year. Just as the industry had to pause, we’re also taking a moment to reflect. Instead of celebrating fine dining and inventive cuisine, we’re acknowledging the people and organizations that, when their industry faced its darkest days, remained beacons.
Some of our honorees are existing groups that pivoted in the face of crisis; others rose up organically to meet the moment. They brought advocacy as well as aid to catch those falling through the massive holes in our social safety net: fundraising to help unemployed restaurant workers, feeding hospital staff, providing free lunch to kids not in school and offering support to working mothers, a group disproportionately burdened by the pandemic. At a time when they would have been forgiven for turning inward and focusing on saving themselves, our honorees instead helped others. What’s even more encouraging is that there are signs their efforts will endure after the pandemic ends, as they push to make the world a better place while hopefully still creating the restaurants that will fill our “Best of ” list when it returns next year.