The Restaurant Industry During COVID-19, A Conversation With Nate Tilden

Elmer’s Restaurant, like many other restaurants, has been forced to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Odessa Sabala

Over the past year, COVID-19 has had devastating repercussions to health and to the economy. Small businesses in particular are taking a huge hit, specifically restaurants. 

Nate Tilden, chef and restaurant owner in Portland, emphasized that the impact of the pandemic on the restaurant industry is huge and for them, not something to take lightly. Because restaurants are almost entirely dependent on people coming to them, there were devastating repercussions when people couldn’t anymore. Tilden used his first business, his “origin story,” Clyde Common, as an example. Clyde was making around $4 million a year before COVID-19. After paying for the expenses of what it takes to run a restaurant, like the costs of goods, the employee paychecks, and the insurance for equipment, the net profit ends up at around $400,000. That then has to be split between five partners and used to pay taxes, so the profit for a restaurateur like Nate ends up being what he describes as less than a Starbucks employee.  

A very successful business like Clyde Common ends up being a lot of work for a low profit, and when you take away that potential to have large revenues the way COVID did, businesses can start losing huge amounts of money at alarming speeds. Nate explained that Clyde Common is still open even after their dramatic drop in profit because they borrowed money from the Small Business Administration (SBA), the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and the Emergency Disaster Loans (EDL). “So we’re still open,” Nates says. “But every day we’re open, our bank account goes. And so it’s a waiting game, if we can get to the place where we come out of the pandemic, and we can start to have customers come in and treat the restaurant like it used to be treated, meaning a lot of people all together jammed in, elbow to elbow at a bar, two, three deep, then maybe we can survive. But if we can’t get to that place before [the pandemic ends] then we don’t survive.”

Nate explained that one of the main reasons most businesses are at this point is they don’t have the systems in place to move to the pandemic model, which is very low labor. Because of this, Nate had to lay off close to 400 people, because there was no need for their jobs anymore. The jobs of every server who would have come to the table to take your order or bartender to pour you a drink just doesn’t work anymore. It’s not just Nate Tilden’s restaurant struggling this year; he estimated 95% of restaurants are facing the same fate as Clyde Common, and the same pressure to figure out how to survive to make it to the finish line. Nate’s words were “It’s a time game. We’re just waiting until we come out of it.” 

Not only do restaurant owners have to wait it out, they also have to find a way to stay afloat until the pandemic is over. Nate’s solution is to pivot. He says that everyday he goes to work to try to figure out how to create a model for his restaurants that is not going to leave him in very dangerous financial waters. Every pivot is a change in direction to keep his business working successfully. A reduced menu with one person in the kitchen, outdoor dining in the summer with tables on the sidewalk, a covered area with heaters when the rain starts—serving handmade butternut squash ravioli and a barrel aged Negroni on cold November evenings —cooking classes over zoom with meal kits. Nate’s most recent pivot is a new direction for him. He closed Clyde Common on December 19 and on January 6 he reopened it as Common Market Cast Iron Pizza, which makes it easier to serve his food to go. This is the first time he’s sold his pizza before, even though he’s been making it for decades. Nate made it clear that even though it sounds like fun when he explained it, it shouldn’t be taken that way. “This is not fun. We’re not doing this as a lark. This is an attempt to not go into complete financial ruin. This is our attempt to survive COVID. And we’re in the waters, we’re swimming hard against a lot of fast waters. And I can’t go into the belief that this is not going to work, because then I’ll lose the momentum I need to carry everything along. I have to believe that we will come out of it. That we will survive.”

Although everything about this situation seems terrible and discouraging, there are a few things you can do. If you want to support your local restaurants, the best thing to do is order food and skip the third party delivery services, which take any chance of making a profit away. Nate Tilden just encourages anyone who loves a restaurant to just go online and order food from them, go and pick it up yourselves, and while you’re there, tip the person dropping it off, because every dollar keeps the metaphorical plane from crashing into the metaphorical mountain. 

Despite all the hardship from the year, Nate’s last words to me are positive ones: “And yeah, through it all, you’ve got to keep that optimistic view. We’ll figure it out. We’ll survive. We will cook delicious food and we will take care of our people. We will pour delicious wines [and] there’ll be laughter. It’s all coming. We’ve just got to hold on.”

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