Restaurant tables pushed to the side. “Delivery and takeout only” signs adorning windows all over town. Employees standing behind cash registers with no customers in sight. 

Restaurants, coffee shops and bars are some of the most immediate, and visible, financial victims of the coronavirus outbreak: the National Restaurant Association is predicting an industry loss of $225 billion and up to 7 million jobs over the next three months. Owners face painful questions of whether it’s even possible to keep their doors open in a new reality where “eating out” means staying home.

“There’s a lot of experimentation to be done,” said David Kirsch, associate professor of management and organization in the Robert H. Smith School of Business. “Human ingenuity is quite miraculous in these kinds of settings—we can come up with all sorts of amazing new ideas.”

Ordering delivery or takeout is one way to support local businesses, but diners may consider future meals, too. Sahil Rahman ’12, who owns the Washington, D.C., fast-casual restaurant Rasa along with Rahul Vinod ’11, said that “buying gift cards is a hugely helpful thing to do because businesses need cash now more than anything so they’re able to stay afloat.” 

Khari Parker ’04, who owns Connie’s Chicken and Waffles in Baltimore with his brother, Shawn, suggested that customers could order a T-shirt or hat from their restaurant’s website. While the Parkers had been planning to offer take-out from their spaces in public markets, those establishments closed yesterday under new guidance from the state.

Kirsch recommends that consumers apply a sort of economic triage when determining which businesses could most benefit from their dollars. “I’m sure all of us can find businesses … with whom we interact that we really care about that are small operations that really do rely upon us and our $10 or $15 or $20.”

Restaurant owners, looking at the situation from the other end, may find themselves forced to reconsider their entire raison d’etre, said Kirsch. He pointed to Seattle fine-dining institution Canlis, which recently made the switch from a four-course $135 tasting menu to a drive-through set-up serving bagels, breakfast sandwiches and burgers. 

“That was a business that had been optimized for one kind of commercial context recognizing that that context had changed and experimenting with a new business model,” Kirsch said.  

Some restaurants and restauranteurs are taking this moment to give back to the community. Washington, D.C., chef Jose Andres, known for his humanitarian work in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, has turned his restaurants into community kitchens serving food at low or no cost. Rahman and Vinod are offering free meals at Rasa to students at D.C. schools and to hospital workers. 

Rahman and Vinod fear they will soon have to lay off employees, and have begun to cut hours dramatically to survive the drop in business. Parker said, “Our biggest concern is, what’s the timeline (for reopening)? We’re pretty much going day by day.” 

Restaurants, even marquee ones, will soon need help as the pandemic progresses. “We’re looking to the city government and, more importantly, the federal government to step up and help out all the small businesses,” Rahman said. “Across the country, restaurants are facing seemingly impossible choices with no good options, so we’re no different in that sense.”