Bar owner preparing drink orders

How Restaurants and Bars Can Cope in the COVID-19 Downturn

8 min read • Mar 25, 2020 • Joe Kukura

Communities across the country are hunkering down into quarantine or lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Markets are in freefall, the likelihood of a recession grows by the day, and some of the nation’s most populous states are on stay-at-home orders for who knows how long. Certainly, our most important priority in the COVID-19 crisis is to halt the spread of the virus and save lives, but these shutdowns have decimated small businesses, particularly in urban areas

Restaurants and bars are in an especially difficult position when people don’t go out. OpenTable data shows a nationwide crash in restaurant visits, and the industry had to adapt fast when the White House gave recent public guidance to “Avoid eating or drinking in bars, restaurants, and food courts—use drive-thru, pickup, or delivery options.”

Remote work is taking off for other industries, but working from home is just not possible in the food and beverage service sector. Several large cities and the state of Ohio have ordered all bars and restaurants to close, and more are sure to follow. But there are still ways for the food and beverage industry to survive the quintessential ‘rainy day’ of coronavirus closures and restrictions that still have no end in sight.   

How Restaurants Can Cope With the Coronavirus Downturn

Food establishments must pivot to delivery or takeout—and in a growing number of states, those are the only restaurants that are allowed to remain open. If your eatery does not currently offer delivery, you can partner with a service like GrubHub, DoorDash, Uber Eats, Caviar, or one of the many online delivery services. Be aware that those services generally take a 15-30% cut of the order, but in trying times, that smaller revenue stream may be a better alternative to shutting down entirely. 

If you’d rather not partner with a delivery service and don’t have your own delivery capabilities, most cities and states are still allowing curbside or front counter pickup of orders placed online or over the phone. 

Many restaurants nationwide are changing their menus to adapt to a new delivery-based model. Eater describes how many fine dining establishments are modifying their menus to switch to abbreviated, take-out menus.

The Washington Post notes how offering restaurant gift cards can provide something of a no-interest loan in the short-term, and you can even tie bonuses or customer incentives to generate larger gift card purchases. Here at Lendio, we’ve partnered with Kabbage to build a small business gift certificate generator called that’s made national news

A similar program called the Dining Bonds Initiative allows your customers to buy bonds, not unlike wartime bonds, described as “gift certificates that are sold at a suggested price of 25% less than face value but redeemable at face value upon dining at the restaurant.”

Safety is a paramount precaution for restaurants that do remain open. If you’re staying in business, the National Restaurant Association has provided a good list of coronavirus safety precautions for restaurants.

How Bars Can Cope with the Coronavirus Downturn

Bars are in a much tougher spot because most do not have the take-out or delivery options afforded to restaurants—except in a few states and municipalities. US News and World Report notes that Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, and Texas are now allowing alcohol takeout and delivery for bars. California, Connecticut, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Vermont have also joined that list,  as well as the cities of Denver and New York. If your bar is located somewhere not listed there, you may want to lobby with your city or state’s political interest organization for bar establishments. 

Most bars, though, will have no choice but to shut down. If that’s your establishment, take a look at your property lease, any loan agreements, or outstanding purchase orders to see if they have any “act of God” or “force majeure” clauses that could lower your obligations.

You can also apply for a small business loan online and get a cash infusion in as little as 24 hours. 

For bar employees, the US Bartenders Guild is offering COVID-19 financial relief for bartenders, and grants are available even for nonmembers of the Guild.

How Employees Can Cope with the Coronavirus Downturn

If you’ve lost work as a food or beverage service employee, applying for unemployment should be your first course of action. Your unemployment process differs by state, but here’s a Google Sheet with links to the unemployment department of all 50 US states. The spreadsheet also contains links to apply for the food assistance programs in each state.  

There’s also plenty of nongovernment assistance being made available during this difficult time. Food and beverage service workers raising children can turn to the Children of Restaurant Employees, which supports parents in the industry during times of crisis. The Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation is offering direct assistance to restaurants and employees, and similar relief funds have been set up by the One Fair Wage—Emergency Coronavirus Tipped and Service Worker Support Fund, Restaurant Opportunities Centers, and the Southern Smoke Foundation, along with a number of community efforts on the local level.

All of the above nonprofits and causes are taking relief applications from impacted workers, as well as donations from those who wish to contribute. In some cases, the donations are tax-deductible.

The federal government just released billions of dollars in Small Business Administration loans (SBA loans) in response to the downturn, you can use an online SBA loan payment calculator to help you budget your repayment terms.

If there was ever a time to take out a small business loan, this is that time. This rainy day won’t last forever, and health has to be our top priority right now. With a little creativity, you can flatten the curve without flattening your restaurant of bar income.


Joe Kukura

Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer whose work also appears in SF Weekly and SFist. He’s written financial advice for NerdWallet, tech industry analysis for the Daily Dot, sports content for NBC Bay Area, and good, old-fashioned clickbait for Thrillist.