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Chef Marcus Samuelsson on coronavirus: 'Where restaurants go away, so goes all small businesses'

Daniel Roberts

The spread of coronavirus, and the mass social-distancing aimed at slowing the spread, has devastated a wide range of industries, but particularly restaurants.

The U.S. has an estimated 15 million restaurant workers, and more than 3 million have already been laid off in the first 22 days of March, according to the New York State Restaurant Association, which also finds that the industry nationwide has lost $25 billion in revenue. The same group says that in the state of New York alone, the restaurant industry has lost $1.9 billion in revenues and more than 250,000 jobs.

Large chains will make it through, but there are serious concerns that thousands of independent restaurants will go out of business from this freeze.

Chef Marcus Samuelsson, owner of Red Rooster (New York City and London) and nine other restaurants, has partnered with World Central Kitchen to keep Red Rooster Harlem open during this time strictly to serve food to the needy.

“We have a purpose,” Samuelsson said on Yahoo Finance on Tuesday. “We are probably doing the most important work we’ve ever done as a restaurant. Neighborhood restaurants are really the soul and heart of neighborhoods, we really define a lot of neighborhoods, and we’re also a large employer.”

Last week, Samuelsson co-authored a New York Times op-ed with fellow chef/restaurateurs Andrew Carmellini, Tom Colicchio, Danny Meyer, Missy Robbins, and Adam Saper, arguing for more federal relief for their industry.

The initial $2 trillion emergency federal package signed by President Trump last week includes beefed-up unemployment pay for many workers. “Unemployment is supposed to hold you over so you can go back and get a job,” Samuelsson says. “But three, four months from now, there’s not going to be those jobs. So, we’re grateful for the first tranche, but we definitely need a second tranche.”

Chef Marcus Samuelsson, who is Ethiopian, but was raised in Sweden, founder of Red Rooster Harlem and more than a dozen other restaurants, holds a tasting plate of Dorowat "lasagna," with injera (Ethiopian flatbread), ayib (Ethiopian cheese), rosemary, and crispy skin, during the C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program) annual benefit, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Samuelsson’s case for helping the restaurant industry is that independent restaurants are part of the fabric of American neighborhoods just like other small shops and businesses.

“Where would America be without restaurants and restaurant workers? It’s not just something cute and important in the neighborhood,” he says. “Where restaurants go away, so goes all small businesses. What’s going to happen to the barbershop, what’s going to happen to the deli around the corner? So we don’t really fight just for restaurants, it’s all small businesses.”

And Samuelsson sees a light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel for the industry, despite the devastating financial numbers right now: “Restaurateurs and chefs, we are dreamers. So I plan every morning. I have to see the light. Although we’re in it right now... we live on hope.”

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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