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Q&A with Safe Eats Founder Carlos Suarez on Reopening Restaurants Safely

The founder and restaurateur speaks about what inspired Safe Eats, how governments can help restaurants and what it will take to get restaurants back to normal

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As restaurants continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurant owners, industry leaders and organizations are taking matters into their own hands to alleviate and solve present and future issues. One thing is certain, restaurants and diners are anxious to get back to regular service. But with mandatory restrictions still in place in certain cities and the prospect of a wave of new cases as we enter the colder seasons, has consumer apprehension high — putting further strain on restaurant revenues. 

But a group of restaurant industry leaders has come together to provide a needed voice, guidance and support for operators. Safe Eats was founded by Carlos Suarez of Casa Nela, a NYC hospitality company (Rosemary’s, Bobo, Claudette, Roey’s) and Yann de Rochefort, the founder of the Boqueria concept in New York, Chicago and D.C. Safe Eats is a non-profit that was created by restaurant owners for restaurant owners – to keep their staff and their guests safe. They’ve partnered with health and safety experts, Zero Hour Health, to provide member restaurants tools and resources that give owners, staff and guests peace of mind. 

We spoke with Carlos on what inspired him and others to start Safe Eats, what restaurants need from the government and what it will take to get restaurants safely back to normal again.

What inspired Safe Eats? What is its mission?

Thinking back to the rather turbulent days back in March and April of this year, I found myself trying to operate a number of restaurants in Greenwich Village, with health and safety at the forefront of my mind. I asked myself how do I keep my team safe? It felt very challenging to keep up with all the changing guidelines and updates from various federal, state and local agencies as well as NGOs that were issuing weekly guidelines. So ultimately, I felt there are other operators like me who are overwhelmed by this new responsibility. I realized that there is a need for a health and safety expert to advise restaurants, specifically.

Department of Health (DOH) consultants didn't have the knowledge or experience to provide adequate support. We needed somebody else. We found a company called Zero Hour Health that's been advising restaurants across the nation for over 30 years. In fact, they were screening for COVID-19 at the Super Bowl in Miami before any of us knew about it. They are highly experienced and have an enormous reach across the country, supporting 50k+ restaurants. We reached out to them and they said that they were keen to partner with us and help the industry by providing that health and safety expertise and a single source of information for operators to turn to. 

Ultimately, that's what drove the creation of Safe Eats — the need for a single source and trusted expert that you could rely on.

The interior of Bobo in New York City

The interior of Bobo in New York City

What does Safe Eats provide restaurant owners like yourself?

Safe Eats exists to help support restaurants in keeping their staff and guests safe. Through our partnership with Zero Hour Health, we offer our members a number of tools to help keep their teams safe. At the heart of which is an app that allows operators to reach out to a medical expert, 24/7, when they have any questions or challenges. Through the app, member restaurants can run their employee health screenings and should an employee fail, a health screening nurse is immediately notified and reaches out to the employee to talk them through their screening and determine if they are just having seasonal allergies or if it could be a case of COVID-19 - and whether they should be excluded from working.

Safe Eats is a collective of NYC restaurants. How did everyone come together to take part in this mission?

The development stage was certainly reaching out to our network of independent restaurant operators, primarily here in New York City, including Loring Place, Charlie Byrd and Cookshop. We sourced a lot of advice and support from a number of these operators, trying to bake it into the most compelling offering we could.

The restaurant industry needs help and solutions can partly come from government assistance and legislation. What exactly do restaurants need from the federal government?

First and foremost, we need to defeat the pandemic. And in order to do that, we need a federally coordinated response. I think we need a national map so that we feel that it's clear and that it's possible to operate restaurants safely if guests and staff are wearing masks, we respect social distancing practices and if we collect customer info for contact tracing efforts. 

Our partners, Zero Hour Health, cover about 50k restaurant locations across the country. They're screening tens of thousands of employees a day. Since March, they've not seen a single workplace transmission of COVID-19 in an environment where these three simple measures are taken: fast screening, masks and social distancing. So we know it's possible to operate safely.

It's a tragedy that on a federal level, they haven't made that clear and required that by state. In the meantime, small businesses need continued financial support. We advocate for an additional round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding and passing The RESTAURANTS Act that the Independent Restaurant Coalition has been championing now for a number of months (now part of The HEROES Act).

The Interior of Roey’s in New York City

The Interior of Roey’s in New York City

I would add that an easy one for the federal government to do is to simply extend the forgiveness window or just cancel the loan portion of the initial PPP funding.

That would provide immediate support. I know businesses like ours were fortunate enough to get PPP signed pretty quickly. The money that we still have in the bank that we spend after tomorrow (9/24) turns into a loan. it's helpful, but it would be a lot more helpful if it would all remain a grant. We're relying on outdoor dining to do, at best, 50% of the business we used to do. There are locations that we have that are closed with no business at all. 

Taking on more debt is not ideal as a result of government-mandated shutdowns. So those are some things that can be done on the federal level. A smaller thing would be adjustments to payroll taxes and deferments that would provide a little bit more breathing room for operators to survive, especially heading into the winter.

How can local government step in to help restaurants?

On a local level, as we look towards the fall, restaurants can start indoor dining at 25% capacity here in New York on September 30th. Obviously, we need the Department of Health to be as supportive as possible of the restaurant community in New York to ensure that the infection rates remain real low so that we can increase capacity to 50% as soon as possible. Getting to 100% capacity is going to be the best medicine for the restaurant industry.

Aside from that, landlords continue to apply pressure because there's very little that the city has done in terms of rent relief or real estate tax relief. So if the city can step in to support landlords, that would in turn improve the kind of negotiating position or the fate of their restaurant tenants. Our sense is that the city doesn't have any money to support landlords, and desperately needs the revenue from real estate taxes. Landlords may feel like they weren’t adequately cut into the PPP. So at both local and federal levels, if there was more support for landlords, that would also alleviate some of the pressure on operators.

***At the time of this interview, restaurants in NYC were operating outdoor dining only. It was announced that indoor dining at 25% capacity would start September 30th shortly after.

It seems as though diners have responded well to outdoor dining and they were quick to support restaurants. What will it take for diners to be less apprehensive about dining indoors now and going forward?

First and foremost, I think the city and state will need to provide very clear direction publicly as to what the expectations should be of diners and the steps that restaurants need to take so that diners can feel safe. I think that that kind of clarity of communication on the part of the state and city government will be very helpful. And of course, restaurants will need to meet those expectations. 

Secondly, of course, look at the data itself. Infection rates remain low (in NYC) although we’re seeing a little spike in some neighborhoods in New York as of late. The hope is that the government is supporting those restaurants that need it and ultimately providing clarity of direction for both diners and operators - that results in us maintaining positivity rates under 3%.

Right now the focus is on New York City and helping restaurants open safely. Do you see Safe Eats expanding into other cities to replicate this model of success?

Absolutely. Our partners Zero Hour Health have a national network. They are speaking to local health departments in all 50 states. They are speaking to the CDC. We chose to launch in New York because these are the restaurants and the community that we know and wanted to serve. I'll add that we've been working with the NYC Hospitality Alliance and DineOut NYC, which was an initiative started by the Rockwell Group. We're now providing pro-bono support to members of the Dine Out NYC program, extending safety tools into some lower-income neighborhoods into the hands of operators that might not have been able to afford the tools.

How can restaurants who are inspired get involved?

Restaurants can visit safeats.org and sign up to be a member. We believe that if we can rally the industry around common sense, collective measures like wearing masks, screening employees, social distancing and more, we can positively impact the pandemic. On the website, we also offer free resources that include a staff screening tool, as well as other resources so that any restaurant, whether they're a safety member or not, can benefit from some of these best practices.

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If the past six months have taught us anything about the restaurant community, it’s that it is one of ingenuity, creativity and resilience in the face of hardship — socially, economically and politically. Safe Eats is a product of restaurant industry leaders coming together to provide a critical solution for restaurants all around the nation. That’s why we’re proud to partner with and support Safe Eats in its mission to help the restaurant community. To learn more information and become a Safe Eats member, visit their website at safeats.org

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