By Marcia Mantell, RMA®

American small businesses are the engines that drive local communities. As we start the holiday season, the small businesses in your town need support more than ever. To say that COVID-19 has decimated local businesses is an understatement. The numbers of boarded up windows, “closed” signs, and dark windows show the high cost of the coronavirus across towns and cities, coast to coast.

Marcia Mantell

Yet, those businesses and their owners who are making it, those small shops that have found a way to embrace change during a pandemic, have a story to tell. And, are unabashedly sharing that they need your help.

Small Businesses, Locally Owned: The Backbone of our Communities

“Customers everywhere are looking for normalcy. Getting out of the house, if only for curbside delivery or take-out, is something people look forward to,” Anthony Fantaroni shared during a recent discussion. Fantaroni is the director of operations at the Tavern on the Wharf in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a family-owned, popular tavern-style restaurant and bar in the heart of the waterfront near the Mayflower replica.

The Tavern represents the importance of the local business community. Small shops together help define the character of the community. They are literally the face of your town, from the store fronts to the front-of-the-house host or hostess. And, so many have your community’s back, as well. Their names and logos splay across the backs of every little league team they sponsor. And they are willing to donate something from their shelves to help someone’s fundraising effort.

There’s a full-circle benefit to your town as the local owners create jobs for the teens, hire local talent, buy from other local suppliers, and pay local taxes that stay right in the community. And these businesses are key to attracting visitors and tourists that bring new dollars into the area.

Restaurants Are the Hub of the Local Economy

While there are many small shops that create unique, diverse, interesting goods and services, it’s the restaurants that are the hub of the town. And the places to go for jobs. Six in ten of us have worked in restaurants at some point in our lives. Overall, restaurants employed more than 15 million people before the pandemic and had sales of nearly $900 billion, about 4% of U.S. GDP, in 2019.

Workers in restaurant jobs are not highly-paid. And, benefits are few and far between. Most local restaurants are not set up to offer retirement plans for the employees. Only about 10% of restaurants offer retirement plans, and most of those are large chains. Not your local Mom & Pop independent restaurant. There is simply too much staff turnover (between 70% and 75% annually) and just meeting payroll every week is challenging enough. But, it’s important to keep in mind that we all are frequenting and supporting an industry where retirement benefits are not on the table.

But we love eating out. Looking at the numbers shows how important restaurants have become to all of us:

Just prior to the pandemic, there were nearly 700,000 restaurants around the country, in a million-plus locations.

Since 2016, Americans spend more food dollars in restaurants than at the grocery store.

44% of us report eating at quick-service places at least once a week.

More importantly, your local, independently-owned restaurants, pubs, taverns, diners, etc., are part of a whopping 355,000 similarly organized small businesses at the center of every town.

2020 Started Out in Grand Style

Congress passed the SECURE Act (Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement) in late 2019. It included important provisions that could help restaurants provide retirement savings plans by joining with other small businesses in their communities. It also allowed many part-time workers to access retirement savings plans. Employment was strong. And, the overall outlook was positive.

“We had the best January sales we’ve ever had. We had the best February sales,” Fantaroni recalls. “The owners, the chef, the staff…we all had such high expectations for this year. And, then, the rug was literally pulled out from under us. And for all Main Street businesses when our State had to shut down. It was devastating.”

Adapt and Overcome

Small businesses aren’t usually in a position to plan for a pandemic and many were unable to survive a shutdown. Fortunately, some found a way.

“Looking back on those first couple of weeks in March, right after the shutdown, it’s remarkable what we were able to do,” Sabrina Melchionno, marketing manager for Tavern on the Wharf, remembers. “We literally turned our operation upside down and on a dime. We had to abruptly close on a Tuesday, but we opened on Wednesday. It was for take-out only service. But it turns out, we were the only place open in town.”

In those first few crazy weeks, the Tavern team got down to business. They amped up their marketing outreach, especially on Facebook and Instagram. Then, the reality sunk in that this was not going to be business-recovery-as-usual. No one knew when restaurants would reopen.

“Our core team starting meeting each week, and we continue to do so today,” Melchionno explained. “We talked about everything from how to make sure our community knew we were open to how we could help our staff who were suddenly out of work. Unemployment checks don’t start right away, so we offered loans to our staff if they needed help with rent or groceries. We all care about each other and wanted to do all we could to help.”

Never before have people who are expert at running restaurants had to get so creative so fast. Besides embracing social media and extensive marketing efforts, restaurants were rallying together at state and local government offices for take-out liquor approvals, to use parking lots for outdoor seating, and to close off streets for outdoor dining.

“We just had to do it,” Melchionno stated matter-of-fact. “We all had to adapt and overcome. And get it all done.”

It’s been Thanksgiving every Week Since March

There was even more going on behind the scenes from your local restaurants. If customers couldn’t come to them, they went to the customers: to the essential workers and first responders.

“Local restaurants take care of their community. We started right away preparing meals for the hospital and police as a way to say ‘thank you’,” Fantaroni says. “Then we noticed other essential workers weren’t getting much recognition. We started a weekly meal program and delivered to the workers at the grocery stores, CVS, and the guys at the gas stations. All of those businesses had to stay open and we wanted to say ‘thank you’ to them as well.”

Delivering a hot meal has a great effect on people. They are grateful for the food, but even more, they are touched that someone recognized their part in supporting the community, too.

“It’s hard to believe we’ve been adapting for nine months. And, now, we’re actually at Thanksgiving,” Melchionno commented. “We decided to make and deliver a Thanksgiving dinner to the Plymouth School’s janitorial staff. What an incredible job they’ve been doing to help our schools stay open. We thought it would be nice to deliver a turkey dinner with thanks from the community this year.”

10 Tips to Support Your Favorite Local Restaurant

Each year, the Saturday after Thanksgiving recognizes the importance of all small shops across America. This is the 11th year and probably the most important one where we all need to pull together to ensure our local businesses stay in business. When you are out and about after Thanksgiving, plan a stop to your favorite restaurant. If you are shopping from home, visit your favorite restaurant online. And use these 10 tips for supporting your local restaurants:

Tip 20 – 25%. Even if you’re getting take-out, curbside delivery, or home delivery, tip the person handing you your bag. The servers count on tips to make ends meet day-to-day versus paycheck-to-paycheck. Give generously this holiday season if you can.

Like their page on Facebook. Many restaurants are now showcasing their latest deals and specials on Facebook. “Like” their page to be the first to get current information.

Find them on Instagram. We love to post photos of our food. Restaurants have caught on. Many have joined Instagram and post new dishes for you to order.

Wear a mask. It’s not hard. It’s the servers who get close to a lot of people every day. They are the people bringing food to you. Protect them.

Be patient. Nothing is running as quickly as it used to. If you want a table, remember, there is a 75% reduction in seating capacity. The kitchen staff has been reduced so it will take longer to cook your food. But you don’t have to cook, so enjoy the down time.

Call ahead. Even if a restaurant doesn’t take reservations, you can call ahead to see how busy they are and plan accordingly. And, check their hours, which can change frequently.

Check out the Waze app. You can find local restaurants as you’re driving around by searching on your Waze app.

Buy gift cards. Order gift cards online, call ahead to order, or stop by to quickly pick up an envelope. Gift cards are especially meaningful to younger folks who might be on a shoestring budget, or to older folks who can use them for takeout.

Write a review on Yelp. Many people check out a restaurant’s reviews before going. If you have good things to say, write a review on Yelp, Google, or Trip Advisor.

Try 1 new local restaurant each week. Make a list of your local restaurants and those in surrounding towns. Pick a new name each week and order take-out.

Keep in mind, you are critical to the economic success of your community. Shopping local makes your town the special place it is. For Small Business Saturday, show your support by buying local and ordering takeout after all that Thanksgiving turkey.

About the author: Marcia Mantell, RMA®, NSSA®

Marcia Mantell is the founder and president of Mantell Retirement Consulting, Inc., a retirement business development, marketing & communications, and education company supporting the financial services industry, advisors, and their clients. She is author of What’s the Deal with Retirement Planning for Women?, What’s the Deal with Social Security for Women? and blogs at BoomerRetirementBriefs.com.