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Gift cards, merchandise and to-go orders: Here’s how restaurants say customers should support them

Lunchtime diners in December at Immigrant Food in Washington, D.C.

Edouardo Jordan stood in front of his 40-plus employees on Monday with a message he did not want to deliver: Two of his three restaurants are shutting down operations, while one will shift to takeout and delivery only. And in an effort to find new income streams, they’ll also start beefing up an online shopping platform to sell merchandise, gift cards and shelf-stable food items.

“I have had to sit down this week and try to decide who we can keep and who to let go,” he says. “We are like a family. It’s not fair.”

The James Beard Award-winning chef has been on the front lines of the coronavirus epidemic since it first arrived in the United States: All of Jordan’s restaurants - Junebaby, Salare and Lucinda Grain Bar - are in Seattle, within a block of one another in the up-and-coming Ravenna neighborhood. While business has faltered by as much as 50% over the past several weeks since the first case of the virus was confirmed in nearby Snohomish County in late January, it was a sudden influx of local diners eager to support struggling restaurants last week that caused him to rethink operations.

“Everyone came out to show us so much love,” says Jordan, “but then we really started to worry about our neighbors putting themselves at risk.”

Residents across the country are, rightly, worried about the future of their favorite local restaurants, which already operate on razor-thin margins and are now facing unprecedented mandatory shutdowns in the effort to slow the spread of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Social media platforms have been filled with suggestions to help cash-strapped eateries, such as purchasing gift cards that can be used when restaurants are able to reopen later this year, loading up on extra takeout items to freeze for future lunches and dinners at home, and setting up house accounts with inKind, an incentive-based platform that allows diners to pay for restaurant meals in advance.

But can any of this well-meaning action on the part of patrons actually help restaurants stay afloat through the current crisis?

Steve McHugh, owner of the charcuterie-focused Cured in San Antonio, says yes.

“Gift cards are like interest-free loans,” said McHugh. “We’ve actually sold a lot this week, and I’ve been surprised that people are buying them.”

Jordan agrees, noting that a few thousand dollars in income from gift card purchases can become the seed money for getting restaurants up and running again when restrictions are lifted.

It’s not that purchasing gift cards is going to save a restaurant outright from permanent closure, says Ralph Brennan of the famed Brennan’s in New Orleans, but combined with other support, it can offer a certain amount of liquidity, mostly for small neighborhood restaurants. Having shepherded his restaurants through Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Brennan is familiar with having to rebuild operations, but sees the uncertainty of the current climate as daunting, even with community support.

“The big difference with Katrina was that we had the rest of the resources of the United States that we could call on, and we knew the extent of the problem,” he says. “The government can have a bigger impact than individuals in this situation, because we’re talking about over a million restaurants across the country being impacted at exactly the same time.”

It’s the widespread economic impact on both businesses and customers that also concerns Cheryl Day, who owns Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia, with her husband, Griff. Closing down the dining room this week, where Day has been chatting with customers for 18 years, has been heart-wrenching, especially when coupled with shifting to a takeout and delivery operation that is less familiar. They’ve been busy adding their three baking cookbooks for sale on their website, which they hope will bring in more income from folks around the country who are taking up baking while in quarantine.

“We do have a loyal base of supporters,” Day says, “but we really don’t know how this is going to work. Our goal has always been to take care of the community, so we’re hoping that when local folks have used up the food that they’re stockpiling, they’ll be able to give us some support. We’ll need it.”

A statement from Marvin Irby, interim president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, echoes Day’s concerns: “It’s too early to know how long the necessary guidance on social distancing will last, but restaurants are still ready to cook for their communities,” he wrote. “Reach out to your favorite local restaurant and find out how you can order.”

First-time restaurant owner Antonio Ferraro is also anxious for support, from the local Washington, D.C., community as well as from the District of Columbia and federal government - especially since the native of Naples, has been getting firsthand accounts on the unfolding of the covid-19 crisis from friends and family overseas. “I know the gravity of the situation there,” he says. “People acted like it was just the flu.” Armed with that knowledge, he’s been actively preparing his Napoli Pasta Bar to respond by establishing a lunch menu and offering an in-house delivery service to residents within a five-block radius.

“We have gift cards, too,” Ferraro says, “and purchasing them would help momentarily, but it’s better for us if people order to-go and delivery. The thing is - even the most loyal customer is probably only going to dine once or twice a week. There’s only so much customers can do to help businesses through this.”

In the meantime, Téa Ivanovic is trying to focus on the future. The director of communications and outreach at Immigrant Food, which opened just four months ago in Washington, D.C., says the restaurant had no choice but to suspend operations for the time being, donating all its food inventory to the immigrant communities it supports. Until it can reopen, Ivanovic says, the restaurant will sell gift cards online, which will include a complimentary glass of prosecco - when diners are finally able to redeem them - to celebrate the end of the pandemic.

“Our tagline is ‘United at the table,’” says Ivanovic, “and we think that’s more important than ever.”