( Courtesy Restaurant Association of Maryland
)

The struggles of U.S. foodservice operators have been well-publicized since March, and the ramifications for the produce trade are well-evident in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., markets.

With business travel and entertainment limited, restaurants in the markets have taken a serious blow.

The National Restaurant Association reported there were 11,357 eating and drinking establishments in Maryland in 2018, generating $13.3 billion in sales and employing 259,000 people. 

In Virgina, the NRA counted 15,507 establishments, supporting 378,600 jobs and generating sales of $18.1 billion. The District of Columbia boasted 2,457 restaurants and bars, producing $4.4 billion in sales and employing 65,200 people.

2020 losses

In a new forecast in late July, restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates projected that one in three U.S. restaurants may close permanently this year, Bloomberg News reported.

The consulting group, which has a website and timeline dedicated to tracking the virus impact on restaurants, predicts that as many as 231,000 of the nation’s roughly 660,000 eateries will probably shut down this year, according to the Bloomberg report.

Restaurants in the Baltimore-D.C. region have begun to reopen, with Virginia entered phase three of reopening on July 1, loosening restrictions on restaurants, stores, gyms and pools.

Washington, D.C., entered phase two on June 22, allowing indoor dining, gyms, libraries and houses of worship to reopen with restrictions.

Maryland entered phase two of reopening on June 10, permitting indoor dining, outdoor pools and outside amusements to reopen.

But a recent resurgence of cases is causing some new restrictions, according to NBCwashington.com.

On July 31, Maryland implemented new mask rules, the media site reported, requiring residents to wear a mask in any business or commercial building and outside when social distance can’t be maintained.

NBCwashington.com also reported the Washington, D.C., Restaurant Week promotion, which had always been a dine-in discount, will become a multi-course takeout deal with family-style offerings.

Industry

While a vaccine or effective medical treatment could be an instant game-changer, near-term conditions in foodservice are discouraging, industry leaders report.

Demand from restaurants was very uneven in late July, said Steve Vilnit, vice president of marketing for Capital Seaboard/G.Cefalu & Bro. Inc., Jessup, Md.

While restaurants have gone through phases of opening for online orders, outdoor dining and then partial indoor dining, some restaurants have closed because of employees testing positive for COVID-19. 

Restaurants in other counties have been shut down by health officials because of a rise in COVID cases. 

“It is very precarious,” Vilnit said. “It is week by week.” 

The trauma on restaurant operators has been long-lasting, making it different than other events such as the Sept. 11 terror attack, which depressed business for just a few weeks, said Buzz Berman, CEO of Belair Produce Co., Hanover, Md. 

“A lot of restaurants are folding and are never reopening,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

While government money is being spent to support distributors, the shortfall in the restaurant and hotel trade up and down the East Coast and in Washington, D.C., is devastating, he said.

“All those big fancy hotels over there in Washington, D.C., with the doormen all dressed up like a knight in shining armor, they are all gone,” he said. 

“Now you go to the Mayflower Hotel (in D.C.) and they have got a baggage cart sitting out front and you put your own bags in them.”

Before COVID-19, the foodservice demand in Washington, D.C., was fueled by conventions, weddings, banquets and meetings that never stopped.

“Most of these big caterers now realize it is never going to come back.”

Expanded outdoor or patio dining during the temperate months is one positive for restaurants, said Tony Vitrano, president of the Tony Vitrano Co., Jessup market in Maryland.

“Right now we’re enjoying the benefits of the outdoor dining, either closing streets and opening up sidewalks and things for outdoor dining in Washington and Baltimore, but things (are) still going on and off,” he said.

Looking ahead, Vitrano believes the outlook depends on how fast a vaccine is developed.

“If this continues, I think you could have a long, slow winter, but if they come up with a safe vaccine that can be distributed throughout the country, hopefully we can put this behind us.” 

 

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