Several weeks after Governor Wolf and Mayor Kenney closed the state and the city due to COVID-19 concerns and the needs of social distancing, Philadelphia’s restaurant economy began folding into itself like so much bad origami. In the wake of that collapse, and after statewide lobbying by the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, the owners and operators of 1700 restaurants in Philly, sent a relief letter to elected officials to seek immediate action on a variety of issues.
Penned by Nicole Marquis, the founder and CEO of HipCityVeg, Charlie was a sinner and Bar Bonbon, the petition asked for emergency unemployment benefits for laid-off employees (eliminating the four-week delay to receive checks), rent abatement and moratoriums on commercial and residential evictions and collection actions for at least 60 days (mandated 60-day grace period to avoid defaults), intervention to require insurers to provide business-interruption coverage related to closures that are mandated by the government related to the current health crisis, emergency loans with no or low interest to businesses that are impacted by the government-mandated closures, and a state sales tax “holiday” for restaurant pickup and delivery orders, so that restaurants that stay open can compete on an even playing field with grocery delivery services – which are not generally subject to sales tax.
That letter went out one month ago. Where do things stand for Marquis, her operations and the letter’s effect?
I asked her.
A.D. Amorosi: How are you guys holding up, personally and professionally?
Nicole Marquis: I guess I’m moving through the emotional stages, kind of like a death, and then maybe a resurrection? Shock. Sadness. Fight for Survival. Get into action. Adapting. Innovating. And finally, hope. Planning for the future. Thinking that if we can survive this, we can survive almost anything, but this might even make us a better company if we make it through. I’m really focused on taking care of my team, at least the skeleton crew that’s still remaining since the restaurant industry got pummeled by the Covid crisis, and the hundreds we had to lay off when our revenue plummeted after everyone went into quarantine. We are keeping our business on life support so we can still be here to reopen our doors when America opens for business again. I do find time every day to be there for my 2-year-old son, Lukas. Usually, it’s bath time and nighttime snuggles, and I try to get at least 7 hours of sleep every night so I can make it through the incredibly intense days. Plus coffee with soy milk, of course. I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder than I have this past month trying to save my business, and I’m awed by how much our team is giving, and the whole Philadelphia restaurant industry is really doing its best to pull themselves and each other through. I’ve seen so much goodness, kindness and generosity, and service to the community.
A.D. Amorosi: Are all your locations doing take out and what menu items were chosen to serve, to rep your restaurants?
Nicole Marquis: Yes, every location of HipCityVeg in Philadelphia is open for takeout and delivery, as is Bar Bombón. We did have to close Charlie was a sinner. because it’s a cocktail lounge and isn’t set up for takeout. We did streamline the menu a bit because we have a much smaller team right now, but we have all the most popular items still like the Smokehouse Burger, Golden Nuggets, BFG smoothies, arugula taco salads, even shakes. We also have adapted our menu for the times, by offering HipCity value meals for people sheltering in place, and dinners for two at Bar Bombon. Soon we’ll be offering BBB Brunch in a Box for people who miss brunch out, and we are encouraging them to do a virtual brunch with friends.
A.D. Amorosi: Nicole, you are responsible for drawing up the petition of local independent restaurateurs – 1700 of them and counting – seeking serious state and city aid. What emotions did you have in writing such a manifesto?
Nicole Marquis: I went through a period of shock and grief when all this happened and we realized how devastating it was going to be for our restaurants and how many employees we were going to have to lay off, and how we had to put our dreams of big growth this year on hold. But I also realized I needed to process, breathe, and then move into action. One of the first things we did was reach out to a group of restaurateurs to see how we could advocate for our industry together, and everybody was really appreciative. It was good to feel the community spirit, even in our devastation, and realize that maybe we could be more powerful and louder if we stood together. I think taking action is always something that makes me feel stronger and better.
A.D. Amorosi: One month later, what has changed? What is moving?
Nicole Marquis: The CARES Act definitely brings us hope, but it also has major limitations and flaws, so we are working with elected officials and the PRLA to improve it. We have been very encouraged by some of our meetings with legislators and they really seem to want to understand our unique needs and want to get us the help we need. But we are also facing the reality that big lobbying firms for much larger companies are better organized and better funded, and the first CARES act shows how they were able to include extremely large corporations who got many millions of dollars in aid, when that wasn’t the original intention of the bill. With the city, the most important thing it can do is fairly balance very appropriate public health concerns with the economic impact of prolonged closures. When the state public health officials deem it safe to do so, we would hope that Philadelphia would agree and follow the state’s recommendations.
A.D. Amorosi: What is the level of support like from your patrons, or diners in general from what you are hearing? Are you surprised that more locals – on Change.org – more quickly, haven’t signed the petition to push the city and state? Do you wonder if diners realize how little of a profit margin exists for independent restaurants?
Nicole Marquis: Overall, customers and the community have been extremely supportive. Many of them were terrified, others were scared about their own jobs and paying rent, so we understand if they have to focus on their own needs first. But we have a lot who are coming back, ordering food regularly, buying gift cards, donating to our employee relief fund, helping us feed frontline healthcare workers–people have donated around $10,000. In terms of the petition, we were really happy with the thousands of people who signed it. We really just wanted a place where we could organize and share our thoughts with those who were concerned and interested. We haven’t promoted it heavily and didn’t have any real goal or expectations on that front, we just wanted to get our needs addressed ASAP so we can have a better hope of surviving this and being here for our employees when we can reopen our doors fully.