How the Coronavirus Has Impacted Arab American Restaurants
By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Writer
As the world has dealt with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), one business especially affected by lockdowns and social distancing has been restaurants. Even in the U.S., with less complete shutdowns, restaurants could only offer delivery or takeout for weeks. Even now, most are not allowed to be back at 100% capacity. In Arlington, Virginia, my hometown, the restrictions in place are stricter than many other areas as restaurants are only allowed to operate with tables six feet apart and masks are required when not eating, drinking, or exercising. Smaller restaurants are especially hard hit, among them are many Arab American restaurants. To learn more about the struggles these restaurants are facing, I spoke with the management of two local Arab American restaurants.
It was Me Jana Lebanese Restaurant, where I had the opportunity to speak to one of the co-owners, Rabih Abi-Aad. Me Jana is a sit-down style restaurant more accustomed to having a large number of customers in their indoor and outdoor seating areas. They were not used to delivery or takeout orders when COVID-19 hit as they normally get their primary business from dine-in meals.
The second restaurant I spoke to was Fettoosh, a Moroccan and Lebanese restaurant, though more well known for their Moroccan food. I spoke to the owner, and he shared their struggles even with more delivery and takeout experience. Fettoosh is a smaller restaurant with limited indoor seating, so even as Arlington opens up, distanced tables are difficult for them.
Restaurant’s Financial Support Options
In response to COVID-19, there have been efforts by the government to support small business, which are defined as any business with 500 employees or less. As part of the government’s response, they have distributed $510,828,384,225 to 4.5 million small businesses across the U.S. It is important to note that there are 30.2 million small businesses (as of 2018), so loans provided to only 4.5 million of them leave many businesses to fend for themselves.
There have been issues with the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) supporting small businesses during COVID-19. One major issue is that companies like Chembio Diagnostics received $3 million, which they said themselves would help them grow their business. The point of PPP money is to keep businesses alive and workers employed, not to create growth.
Currently, many restaurants struggle to receive any PPP funds. With already thin margins and little cash to fall back on, many are likely to close, some predict as high as 75%. Restaurant owners are coming together to lobby the government for support. They are requesting funds directly allocated to struggling restaurants in the form of grants and loans, but their success is uncertain.
A New Challenge for Restaurants
Restaurants already have little room to spare in their budgets, so when a place like Fettoosh is not acquiring many new customers and has lost about 50% of their normal customers due to COVID-19, they must adapt as best they can. Rabih at Me Jana said that while their to-go orders have increased, they would need nearly double to break even. Staff members are doing the best they can while wearing masks, washing hands 50+ times a day, and still providing quality food.
Me Jana was lucky to have an outdoor area when Arlington entered Phase 1, but they had to remove 10 tables due to social distancing measures, and rain or hot weather means few customers. Their indoor area has helped business as Phase 2 began, but losing numerous tables and with customers fearful of eating inside has crippled much progress.
On the contrary, at the other restaurant, Fettoosh, they have a small indoor dining area and can only provide six tables due to social distancing rules. One of the attractions of Arab American restaurants is hospitality centered around good food. With distancing measures, it is difficult for these Arab American restaurants to draw in new customers through their charm, and they must rely on returning customers.
Both Me Jana and Fettoosh have suffered a massive loss in revenue, which like many small restaurants is a hit they cannot easily absorb. As Fettoosh’s owner said, “we are not making a lot of money even in normal times, we are not millionaires, we are just trying to make a living and support our families.” Rabih at Me Jana told me that some nights his employees only take home $20, and now his monthly salary is the same as his monthly mortgage payment, which leaves nothing extra to support his family. Neither establishment has had a forgiving landlord, so they cannot find a financial break anywhere and a few days ago Fettoosh’s landlord actually raised their rent. Many Arab American restaurants are smaller and run by people just trying to bring a taste of their country to America and provide for their families, but they cannot absorb major revenue losses.
Along with a loss of customers, COVID-19 is also impacting supply chains and driving up food prices. Fettoosh’s owner told me before the pandemic, ground beef was $35, and now it is $70 (with a similar doubling of prices for other products). Rabih added that they are offering discounts on orders and are even selling bottles of wine for 50% off just to make some money. The owner of Fettoosh has not raised his prices in many years and still will not increase them even though he may need the money. This shows the caring and hospitality that comes with Arab American restaurants, a style of service we do not want to lose.
Why Arab American Restaurants Really Need Our Support
For many Arab American restaurants, their ability to pivot to simpler dishes and lower-priced ingredients is a challenge. With Arab food, there are often more expensive ingredients such as lamb, pine nuts, quality olive oil and the wide variety of spices that give their dishes such flavor. Along these lines, Arab dishes often require a more complex cooking process and cannot be rushed along without compromising taste. The hospitality, warmth, and attentiveness one can find from an Arab American restaurant is what brings customers in and adds new customers, but currently, that is difficult. However, I still received a warm welcome and delicious food when I recently ordered takeout from Fettoosh.
As the pandemic continues and Arlington maintains their strict coronavirus rules, Fettoosh’s owner tells me that some of his friends have already gone out of business and Fettoosh itself is working hard to stay in business; he says they may only last two more months. There will always be a burger, taco, salad, and pizza places, but for those like Fettoosh and Me Jana simply hoping to share some of their native Moroccan and Lebanese food, there will not be a quick replacement.
The future remains uncertain during this pandemic, and restaurants do not know how long they will last or if they will recover financially post-coronavirus. Rabih believes people are becoming more willing to take the risk and sit closer than 6-feet just to get back to normal, but Fettoosh’s owner is less optimistic because he believes many people are still very worried about eating in restaurants. To those who are reading this, it is essential that we support all local restaurants in our area, but especially Arab American restaurants because they bring us a unique taste of their food, culture, and most importantly, enrichment to our diverse society.
Rabih Abi-Aad: co-owner of Me Jana Owner of Fettoosh
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