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St. Louis Chef Gerard Craft Says Many Restaurants Won’t Last The Winter Without Relief

Gerard Craft, CEO of Niche Food Group, operates several restaurants in the St. Louis region and worries that patchwork regulation across the region and a lack of financial aid will knock out many restaurants by the end of winter.
Gerard Craft
Gerard Craft, CEO of Niche Food Group, operates several restaurants in the St. Louis area. He worries that patchwork rules across the region, which in some areas ban indoor dining, and a lack of financial support are crippling local restaurants.

St. Louis restaurants have scraped by for months, adapting to new coronavirus-related safety rules and ways of doing business. But many may not make it through the winter months.

Chef and restaurant owner Gerard Craft said local restaurants like his are being crippled by new safety regulations that ban indoor dining in St. Louis County without offering financial support.

The CEO of Niche Food Group operates several restaurants in the St. Louis area, including Pastaria, Brasserie and Taste, among other concepts, as well as one restaurant in Nashville. He said he recently had to lay off some servers at his county-based restaurants because there’s not enough business with just curbside orders and the occasional nice day on the patio.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page on Monday extended his “safer at home" order for at least two more weeks. Starting in mid-November, it ordered restaurants to halt indoor dining to curb the spread of the coronavirus. St. Louis still allows restaurants to serve customers indoors as long as they enforce masks and social distancing. The difference in rules is leading to a lot offrustration among restaurant owners along borders.

Craft, who also operates restaurants in the city, said it’s been stressful for him and his staff to figure out how to stay in business while keeping people safe.

“Every decision we make is, really, a bad decision. It’s lose-lose.” he said.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Corinne Ruff spoke with Craft about how restaurants are doing now that the weather is colder and why elected officials should be doing more to help.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Corinne Ruff: How are St. Louis businesses holding up at this stage of the pandemic?

Gerard Craft: Things are pretty awful. We just kind of got dropped off of a cliff right there in those first cold days of November.

Ruff: Coronavirus cases are spiking across the region. But the rules are different depending where you are. For instance, in St. Louis County, restaurants still aren't allowed to serve indoors, but in St. Louis, they can but they must enforce masks. In St. Charles County, there's no mask requirement at all. Do you think that a lack of a regional plan makes it hard on restaurant owners like yourself?

Craft: Yeah, I think it makes it incredibly hard. I mean, when you really think about how things have been done, there have been some glaring gaps and problems with the way that we're looking at the causes of this virus.

None of this is safe. All right, we should all say that. Going out to a restaurant is not the safest place to be. But also, going over to your friend's house — if there's 10 people over there that you don't know, or even that you do know but also go to their other friend's house where there's 10 people and another friend's house where there's 10 people — that's even more unsafe. So we're all kind of weighing risks here. And I just don't believe that there's been a lot of thoughtful implementation of these rules from city to county.

Ruff: You've been very outspoken on social media, calling up Missouri elected officials to pay attention to struggles that are going on in the restaurant community. What do you want them to do?

Craft: I think the thing that I want them to do is — you know, it's really easy to say, ‘Hey, we're shutting down restaurants to help contain the spread.’ And, that's great and all. But you know it would really be nice to tag that along, like, "Hey, we've had since March of last year to try and figure things out. So when we shut you down, we're gonna shut you down with some economic assistance." But that hasn't really come out of the mouths of any Missouri official.

If we could get a little more of that, we would love to hear the Senate take this a little more seriously and pass the Restaurants Act that the Independent Restaurant Coalition has come up with and give some relief to all of these local businesses.

Ruff: Is there anything that you want the public to know about — what it feels like to operate a restaurant right now in St. Louis?

Craft: People always ask me what it's like to open a restaurant. It’s one of the hardest things you will do. It's grueling, it's tough. You're constantly being judged, and you're trying to get everything right. You're trying to train this brand-new staff and create this new dynamic. And it's really, really a stressful experience. And what I would say about operating a restaurant now, it’s almost like you're doing that every couple of weeks because everything's changing. You're constantly having to reinvent yourself. We have fine dining restaurants becoming pizzerias and burger joints. And I have a French restaurant serving French fried chicken on Mondays. We're just constantly trying to evolve.

Ruff: St. Louis is known for having a really vibrant local food scene. But we've seen restaurants start to close over the last couple of months and weeks. Do you worry that over the next few winter months, especially, that that food scene will wash away?

Craft: Yeah, I do. I think it's very real that a lot of restaurants will not make it through this winter. I think restaurants are strong, they are resilient. And all the chefs and [general managers] and restaurant owners out there are true hustlers. But there's only so much you can hustle through. This is unlike anything that we've ever experienced

Ruff: As a leader in the restaurant space here, is there any advice you have for other restaurant owners?

Craft: I’ve got a lot of friends that have big platforms that don't always use it because they're scared to sound political. But this isn't a time to be quiet. This is really a time to kind of speak up and make change happen.

One thing I'd love to add is take care of your mental health. During this, you know — to all of my restaurant people out there — I think that's one of the biggest challenges through all of this, trying to, in the midst of all this negativity, to keep yourself positive and pushing forward. This is really a time when, if we can't keep our own heads straight, It's gonna be really hard to keep our restaurants straight.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.