Considerate Community Thought and Effort Can Help Save Our Local Retailers, Dated May 5, 2020

To those blessed with good health and finances the main struggle of late has been the total inversion of normal. Mercifully. But small businesses weren’t even lacing their gloves when the knockout blow was dealt. With few exceptions these local shop fronts operate in a world where remote employment is not possible and the layoffs were immediate and catastrophic, the number of people affected staggering.

To highlight the strain on such places, the Starbucks sitting on the corner of Montana and 15th is closing its doors permanently. Yes Starbucks, that household name and industry juggernaut found in 62 countries with 182,000 employees and annual revenue of $26.5 billion, is unable to weather the storm at that location. Starbucks, it’s worth mentioning, has a market share just shy of 25% meaning that 1 in 4 Americans, stepping from their homes destined for a caffeinated mood enhancer each morning, deposit their money into the same enormous and well-lined money pit, Starbucks. Yet, the seemingly always-busy neighborhood store by Whole Foods is no more.

Could there ever be a more glaring example of the pressure level felt around the city?  Here in Santa Monica, the argument could be made, the small restaurants and retailers dotted generously amongst our shady and sun drenched streets are one of the areas finer features. To imagine many are at serious risk is an arresting and frightful thought, but a very real one given current events.

This is, however, potentially salvageable with thoughtful financial interaction from those able to. Hard and strange times like these have a tendency to bring a community together. It seems, paradoxically, social distancing has brought us closer, in the metaphorical sense. Things like neighbors chatting for hours over fences as their kids play at their feet is a heartwarming thing to witness. Those out exercising, considerately making room for one another and sharing polite gestures as they pass, is also a new and pleasingly common observation. I urge the same sense of community be applied to our little local businesses as they prepare to open their doors.

In the uber-competitive, high-rent and fickle world, are we really aware of just how shaky the small business tightrope can be? As we slowly ebb toward normality, that rope has never been more perilous nor the stakes more real. For those fortunate enough to be able to spend freely I urge them to think carefully about how and where the money is spent. With so many employees desperate to get back to work and owners flirting with ruin, we need not just be another customer but be a better customer in this rapidly approaching new normal.

Choose local and choose small. Independent mom and pop venders are the most vulnerable as society slowly gets back on its feet. Already the underdog in the commercial marketplace before the pandemic, the need to patronize and take care of these places cannot be overstated.

If you’re spending your money in a business of the tipping industry, tip appropriately. A couple extra dollars on top of whatever is your usual adds up if we do it en masse. There is a misconception that tipping is only a bonus for a staff member already presumably pulling a decent salary. The reality is that the modest wages paid to staff in tip-reliant industries allows the house to hire a larger base of people. Therefore, with the extra numbers, a level of service is created that, you, for example, may not see in Europe, where wages are better, staff are therefore more scarce, and tipping is often not expected. Great service does have a fee. That’s what you’re paying for. What it comes down to is just take care of those who take care of you.

If you’re out to happy hour remember the restaurants are almost certainly operating well below capacity while distancing laws are enforced. This is an industry where the more seats you can squeeze into your mind-bendingly expensive slice of real estate is the difference between sink and swim. The knife-edge that many restaurants operate on may surprise many who frequent them. Busy restaurants with excellent chefs, good reviews and a faithful following can still find any number of ways to go belly-up. So many things must go perfectly right while so few errors are made just to keep the doors open and the lights burning. Happy hour is essentially advertising. Small tasty samples of what usually exists as much larger dishes can be sampled at a fraction of the cost, financial and physical. But it’s not great news for the house or your servers. The already thin profits can be turned side-on should an evening be unexpectedly quiet, but reach for a microscope if you’re looking at margins during happy hour. So next time stay past 7 p.m. and try an item off the dinner menu or a couple regular-priced drinks to balance the scales.

Be patient. Many of these businesses never close for more than a day, most not at all. Now they have been down for months. Some staff are probably new and the familiar faces out of practice. The need to be busy, and busy now, is real. This may result in things moving a little slower than you’re accustomed. Service a little clunky or teething issues juggling a wave of anxious people desperate for normality. Be patient if it doesn’t go quite as smoothly as you had remembered. … I’ll be just so happy to be back, won’t you?

David Dawson, restaurant owner and personal chef

Santa Monica