If you walk through business corridors throughout the city, you’ll notice something: A handful of new storefronts, but more that are still empty.
As leaders of DMV Black Restaurant Week and the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, two organizations based here in D.C. that support business owners and entrepreneurs of color, we saw firsthand the struggle of restaurant owners during the pandemic. Business owners were forced to navigate health mandates, local regulations, staffing shortages and declining sales, among many other surprises that came as a result of COVID-19. Many Black and Hispanic business owners lacked the traditional support systems and liquidity to help them weather these challenges. Unfortunately, much of this led to permanent closures.
While D.C. has reopened, we have a long way to go to revive economic corridors across the city — particularly downtown. We both know there’s a path to get there.
For decades, discriminatory financial lending practices have been especially damaging to Black and brown business owners. One study found that Black and brown business owners nationwide are twice as likely to be denied loans than their white peers. And even when loans are approved, the loan amount is more likely to be less than their white peers, with higher interest rates.
That’s why minority business owners in D.C. have needed to look for support elsewhere. And many found it in perhaps an unexpected place: Third-party delivery platforms. While diners were eager to support their longtime favorites, many local restaurants needed to grow their customer base in order to stay afloat during the pandemic. These platforms, like DoorDash or UberEats, provided a boost to sales, allowing restaurant owners to grow their reach and connect with new customers.
Even today, third-party delivery remains a particularly attractive option for small businesses, as many do not have the infrastructure or funding to stand up their own delivery fleet in a way that larger corporate food chains do. According to a study by DoorDash, 59% of merchants report difficulties in hiring and retaining delivery workers, and 50% say managing their own delivery service would be too time consuming. In the same study, 61% of surveyed merchants agree that they prefer DoorDash to operating their own delivery fleet.
Some business owners relied on pickup and delivery to survive, and some were able to leverage food delivery to innovate and grow their businesses. We still hear from business owners about how delivery platforms have allowed them to diversify their businesses, test new food and restaurant concepts, and even launch new storefronts. D.C. resident Andre McCain, for example, who owns the gastro-pub Half Smoke, launched a breakfast restaurant called Butter Me Up first as a delivery concept during the pandemic, and recently opened his flagship storefront for the restaurant last month on 14th Street.
However, we know it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, and restaurant owners need to be able to make decisions that are best for their business. The local restaurant owners we work with say that being able to choose the rates that work for them — with the freedom to add on additional services as they need — is crucial for making ends meet in an industry known for its razor-thin margins. They can also choose not to engage in delivery at all: While delivery has helped businesses, many other restaurants continue to do well without, instead relying on the in-person dining experience. At the end of the day, empowering business owners to make these decisions is the best way to ensure minority-owned restaurants can go from surviving to thriving.
D.C’s recovery is a team effort – our organizations, the D.C. local government, and third-party delivery platforms have provided critical support to keeping restaurants afloat through the pandemic. But now it’s time to allow them to thrive, and to do so we must think critically about how we can orient both practical and policy solutions to best address the systemic challenges that are presenting obstacles to helping minority business owners recover from the pandemic. Embracing the changes, ideas and innovations that helped businesses navigate and survive the pandemic should be the driving force for policies, rather than adding new regulatory hurdles. This is mission critical to ensuring that minority-owned businesses are no longer left behind.
Erinn Tucker-Oluwole is the director of the Global Hospitality Leadership master’s program at Georgetown University, CEO of Loop Now, LLC, and co-founder of DMV Black Restaurant Week.
Nicole Quiroga, a native of Washington, D.C., is the president and CEO of the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.