The coronavirus pandemic has been incredibly damaging for the restaurant industry in the United States: The National Restaurant Association estimated in December that at least 17% of the country's food service establishments had shuttered.
Experts in the industry estimate that restaurants will continue to suffer throughout the next few months, even as vaccinations roll out across the country.
"Clearly, people are not going out to eat and supporting their restaurants anywhere near in the numbers that they used to," said Marshall Weston, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. "... I think it's really important that we all make a conscious efforts to support our restaurants, as often as we can. It really takes a conscious effort to put restaurants at the top of our minds and realize how much they need us to ensure they'll be here many months from now."
Support your favorite restaurants
One of the best ways to help your favorite local establishments stay afloat is to continue to patronize them, especially in areas that have restricted indoor dining and are only allowing take-out or delivery options.
Some local towns are running social media campaigns encouraging diners to try new places or patronize old favorites, which can be a great way to raise awareness for the various restaurants in need.
"Supporting restaurants is something different to every person, depending on your comfort level," said Weston. "We've seen lots of people who are very comfortable dining at a restaurant, and continue to do so. We've seen people that maybe aren't as comfortable dining indoors but will get takeout several times a week when normally they don't do so."
If you are placing a carry-out or delivery order, try to order from the restaurant directly instead of using a third-party delivery app. Third-party sites can charge restaurants a significant amount, meaning that only a small amount of what you're spending goes to the restaurant you're trying to support.
John deBary, the co-founder and board president of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, said that if you do dine out, be sure to wear your mask and follow other restrictions to keep yourself and restaurant employees safe.
"For millions of people going to work, it's potentially life-threatening, especially in a food service environment where people are eating indoors," said deBary. "You can't really eat with a mask on; there's that extra level of risk that people are taking when diners come in and are talking and moving around without a mask on."
Make sure you tip well
Whether you're dining out or eating at home, make sure you tip well: Many in the restaurant industry make just a few dollars per hour and are reliant on tips to supplement their income.
Weston said that in his experience, people are still tipping well, but recommended that people be sure to leave a decent tip especially if ordering delivery or carry-out.
"We do hear that those customers who are coming out are supporting restaurants and supporting their servers and bartenders," Weston explained. "They're doing so consciously, they don't want to see their favorite restaurants go under, and they don't want to see employees lose their jobs so they're making a conscious effort to go out to eat and to support the employees in the business, and I think that's exactly what is needed."
Support local relief funds
Some organizations have set up relief funds, which can help keep restaurant workers afloat during turbulent times. Donating to these can help make a material impact on the lives of employees who are out of work or are making less money during the pandemic.
"We have a dedicated relief fund that has raised over seven million dollars," deBary said in late November. "That (amount) is just staggering, but compared to the size of the problem, it's almost like pennies."
Purchase gift cards for future use
One of the most effective ways to help restaurants is to purchase gift cards and use them after the pandemic has ended and establishments are back on their feet.
"Buying gift cards allows the restaurant to have some cash now that would enable them to get through," Weston explained. "...When you buy a gift card for $100 from your favorite local restaurant, you're helping significantly with the cash flow issues that the restaurant is going to have, and that's going to help them immediately.
Weston said that while restaurants may not return to normal operations for at least a few months, the immediate cash from a gift card will help them last until then.
"When we get beyond this pandemic, you will have a bunch of gift cards that you can use and celebrate with your friends and family," Weston said. "When you come back and redeem that gift card nine months or a year from now, that restaurant is hopefully going to be in a much better place financially."