• Before the pandemic, I was a Taco Bell fan who ate fast food for a living.
  • But since the pandemic began, I’ve had a shift in perspective and job responsibilities.
  • In the past two weeks, I’ve talked to countless restaurant owners and industry experts and realized just how dire the situation for independent restaurants is right now.
  • At the same time, chain restaurants are not only better positioned to come out of the pandemic intact, but their actions since it started have also shown a lack of compassion and regard for their workers’ safety.
  • Now, the thought of eating Taco Bell puts a bitter taste in my mouth, so I’m choosing to support my local independent restaurants over eating at chain restaurants.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Boy loves Taco Bell.

Boy meets girl. Girl also loves Taco Bell. They get together. They hole up together when a pandemic hits. Boy looks forward to many romantic evenings filled with Quesaritos, Crunchwraps, and Doritos Locos tacos. Then, girl refuses to eat Taco Bell, leaving boy heartbroken.

I’m the girl in this story. “But Irene,” you may say. “Why not simply let your boyfriend have his Crunchwrap supreme and eat it too? What’s the harm in a little processed cheese here and a little Dorito dust there?”

I have no particular beef with fast food. Before the pandemic, my job was to eat fast food for a living. I taste-tested burgers, fries, and even compared Taco Bell to Del Taco. But everything changed when the coronavirus attacked — including my job. Taste tests lost their importance, and I started doing the kind of reporting that means talking to people about their problems.

In the past two weeks, I’ve spent hours talking to and listening to restaurant owners and industry experts. I talked with a North Carolina couple who’d been planning to retire after 33 years of building up a restaurant business, only to face starting over again. I followed a restaurant owner who’s been working 13-hour days to keep his family restaurant afloat after being forced to lay off his entire staff.

Although the restaurant industry as a whole has been devastated by the pandemic, independent operators are absolutely the ones who’ve been hit the hardest. The more I talk with people, the clearer it becomes to me just how dire the situation is for independent restaurants.

I spoke to Portland, Oregon-based chef and restauranteur Natalie Pomeroy, who was forced to shut down both of her restaurants during the pandemic and furlough all her employees. She went into personal debt to pay her employees’ health insurance.

“There are a lot of people who have put their life and energy into these passion projects,” Pomeroy told me. “Nobody gets rich in this business. And that’s important for people to realize that even if they see a chef on TV, that person is not necessarily rolling in it.”

Pomeroy and a coalition of other chefs started the Independent Restaurant Coalition to advocate for independent restaurants’ interests in legislation. Since chain restaurants are backed by corporate money, they’re able to have much more influence in Congress because they can afford lobbyists. Independent restaurant owners don’t have that kind of lobbying power.

As a result, the legislation that passes tends to overlook the needs of independent restaurants in favor of the needs of chain restaurants. Sometimes they coincide. At other times, they don’t. Potbelly Corporation and Ruth’s Chris Group were among the large corporations that recently received small-business funding from the emergency stimulus package. Potbelly received $10 million from the Paycheck Protection Program, while Ruth’s Chris subsidiaries received $20 million. Meanwhile, countless small businesses were unable to receive the funds that would have allowed them to keep their doors open.

Chain restaurants are also simply better-positioned to survive the crisis. In a recent webinar hosted by Business Insider, restaurant analyst John Gordon told correspondent Kate Taylor that casual dining restaurants are seeing double the revenue losses of fast-food restaurants. While casual dining restaurants are seeing average revenue declines of 60-90%, fast-food restaurants are seeing nearly half that, with an average 35% decline.

Chain restaurants are also coming under fire for how they’re treating their workers. Since the pandemic began, they’ve been battling claims that they’re overworking employees and putting them at risk. Taco Bell employees lambasted the chain for promoting “Taco Tuesday,” a giveaway deal that drew hordes of customers to stores. The promotion offered free Doritos Locos tacos (my favorite Taco Bell item) to anyone who came to a Taco Bell drive-thru. As a result, workers were overwhelmed with traffic but received no additional pay.

“My franchise is failing to pay us any more than we’re already making, however, they’re finding ways to increase sales volume,” one Taco Bell employee told Business Insider.

A Taco Bell representative told Business Insider that the chain is “very sensitive to our team members’ feedback, and we want them to know that we hear their concerns.”

“It’s very important to us that Taco Bell remains the safest place to work and eat,” the representative said. “We are also doing our part to provide safe meals that our fans know and love – and throwing in a free DLT to show our appreciation. Even in tough times, restaurants are considered essential businesses because people will always need to eat. This offer is available via drive-thru and carry-out only, so person-to-person contact remains limited.”

Of course, Taco Bell isn’t the only fast-food chain that’s faced worker backlash for its actions during the pandemic. 

Workers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Dunkin’, Starbucks, Wendy’s, and other chains have reached out to Business Insider in the last month. Many of them expressed fear for their lives and fear of not being able to pay their bills, others said they wished that customers would stop coming.

Still, much of working-class America depends on fast-food restaurants, and I can’t judge people for doing what is right for their wallets and busy schedules. Being able to eat at independent restaurants, especially of the caliber of chef’s like Pomeroy, is a privilege, and not one that everyone can afford. And that’s a major reason — and not a wrong one — that diners will choose a $3 Wendy’s burger over $9 Pad Thai from a local restaurant.

“People are used to eating inexpensive food,” Pomeroy said. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with eating inexpensive food. People have to get by, and it’s hard out there. We live in an expensive culture and I don’t look down on people for doing that.”

It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is right now. Many of my generation have lived sheltered lives and have, in the past month, been thrust into a cyclone of moral quandaries. Do I go out? Do I see my friends? Do I visit my parents? Should I go to the grocery store less, should I buy fewer masks, less toilet paper, more produce? For the first time in my life, at least, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been when it comes to the choices I make with my money. So many industries are on life support, and so many people are out of work. Choosing to buy from one place over another feels like a much more important decision than it’s ever been.

I don’t know if ordering from independent restaurants is the right thing to do. Restaurant work keeps people in danger, even if it keeps them fed. And large corporations feed and employ many Americans, too.

All I know is that every Taco Bell craving now comes with a bitter taste in my mouth. And as someone who’s lucky enough to still have a job, I’m choosing to put my money where my mouth is.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

More:

Fast Food
chain restaurants
Small Business
Taco Bell

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