Less restaurant and retail business, lower local sales tax revenue

The ongoing effects of COVID-19 on business activity, particularly restaurants, will impact communities:

Restaurant dining room closures resulting from the coronavirus pandemic are wreaking havoc on the industry’s bottom line and upending the lives of many working in the service industry. Those losses also will be felt by communities that rely on restaurant sales taxes and special food and beverage taxes to help fund municipal services. Some suburbs will feel the effects much more than others because of how heavily they rely on such taxes.

Sales taxes at restaurants and bars contributed more than $2 million a week to 83 suburbs, a Daily Herald analysis of 2019 tax records on the Illinois Department of Revenue’s website shows.

In a dozen suburbs, sales taxes from restaurants and bars represented more than 20% of all their sales tax revenue last year…

“It’s not just restaurants and bars, though,” said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, pointing out many sources of sales tax have had sharp drops. “Everybody in the retail sector has been negatively impacted, aside from groceries.”

With more Americans eating out in general, the ability of restaurants to draw visitors from other communities, and connections between eating and other recreational and cultural activities, eateries can be important sources of revenue.

Communities can aspire to have a diverse tax base where they draw tax revenues from a variety of sources, including sales taxes and property taxes. At the same time, some communities develop niches where they focus on one business sector or they have a historic strength. Diversification may be difficult to achieve and depend on a variety of forces including actions by local officials and leaders, the demographics of the community, historic patterns, and actions by business owners and larger economic forces. In other words, the character of a community’s tax base develops over time, can change, and at least in part depends on outside actions and forces beyond a community’s control.

It will also be interesting to see where the budget issues that municipalities face fall among the other economic concerns. Sales tax revenues are part of the picture but so might be property values if businesses need to close and there are not other businesses to take their place. If the federal government and states are also facing big hits to revenue, what might happen to municipal budgets?

Starbucks as a symbol of wealth in a community

Starbucks is planning more stores in less wealthy neighborhoods:

Starbucks plans to open or remodel 85 stores by 2025 in rural and urban communities across the U.S. Each store will hire local staff, including construction crews and artists, and will have community event spaces. The company will also work with local United Way chapters to develop programs at each shop, such as youth job training classes and mentoring…

Starbucks opened its first community store in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2016, two years after the riots that broke out over the shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer. It has added 13 more locations since then, including stores in Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans and Jonesboro, Georgia. Another one will open this spring in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Starbucks estimates the shops have created more than 300 jobs…

Kelly said the stores reflect Starbucks’ core belief in responsible capitalism. The coffee shops are profitable, he said, and have the same menu as regular Starbucks stores…

“I can’t think either of a retailer, especially one that has more of a discretionary, higher-end purchase, being willing to push into neighborhoods and markets that have less purchasing power,” Theodos said. “Starbucks usually appears when a neighborhood has the purchasing power to support it.”

For years, Starbucks has been a brand and presence that signals a wealthier location. With their prices, products, and aesthetics, communities had to have a certain level of resources for Starbucks to locate there. Once the money was there, Starbucks might arrive in droves. (I’m thinking of the number of Starbucks on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.) If payday loan stores and dollar stores help identify poorer locations, Starbucks may be the most common restaurant that signals the opposite.

I am curious about one item of information from the article. The Starbucks executive quoted in the story says the locations are profitable. Does this mean Starbucks avoided these locations for so long even though they could have made money or did something change in the cost equation over time? Some firms would want to expand everywhere to bring in money though others might want to protect their status.

A restaurant smaller than a McMansion dining room

McMansions are known for having a lot of space; certain restaurants try to keep the dining room very small. Thus, the comparison between an Omaha cafe and a McMansion dining room might not seem out of place:

You feel at home in Sojourn the minute you walk in the door and down a hall that’s separated from the eating area. When you reach the cafe, it’s much like you’re entering your own dining room. The serving area, with 12 tables for four, is smaller than some dining rooms in suburban McMansions.

OmahaRestaurantDiningRoom

However, this appears to be a decent-sized space with room for twelve tables, 48 customers (plus the small countertop in the back), and still some room for people to get by. And if this estimate of 12 square feet per diner is anywhere close, this space has roughly 570 square feet.

This would make for a very large McMansion dining room. Even with the interest Americans might have in always having some extra space, how many times does a McMansion owner need to seat 48 people? A 20 foot by 20 foot square McMansion dining room comprising of 400 square feet would be smaller than this space. A 40 foot by 15 foot rectangular dining room would be slightly larger than this. The size of this cafe is probably more akin to a great room or family room in a McMansion rather than a dining room.

So why the comparison here to a McMansion? Two guesses. First, the emphasis is on the relatively small space of the cafe. While the video does not suggest the space is too tight, the dining room would certainly be lively with a half full or more dining room. This is not a suburban chain restaurant with tables upon tables; this is a limited space. Second, the description attempts to highlight the coziness and warmth of the space. McMansions have plenty of space as well as limited charm due to their cookie-cutter nature and cavernous rooms.

Food delivery services and restaurants aiming for the unsaturated suburban markets

Skift Table suggests the suburbs are ripe for increased restaurant and food delivery activity:

Outside the urban cores, things get interesting. Earnest Research shows that in the rest of the U.S. market, it’s a head-to-head battle between DoorDash (31 percent market share) and Uber Eats (with 30 percent). In third place is Grubhub, coming in at 27 percent…

“Many suburban areas tend to have a larger number of chain restaurants than independent mom and pop restaurants, making it advantageous for Grubhub to offer takeout from these familiar chains to local residents who may not be accustomed to the idea of ordering delivery,” says Katie Norris, Senior Manager of Communications at GrubHub…

But not all restaurants need to be located on Main & Main to succeed, thanks to the ever-expanding reach of digital marketing and social media. And raising capital might also be within closer reach than once thought. “To mitigate high rents, many brands are opening in second-tier locations and that’s very attractive to investors,” says Chad Spaulding, Managing Director at the U.S.-based investment firm Capital Spring. “We spend more of our time seeking low-rent, low-investment type opportunities that provide a value to the consumer that you can count on in tougher times in the wider economy.”

Suburban locations not only fit this bill, they also solve the urban issue of oversaturation. There is simply less competition the farther afield you go. And now, you can actually go further than before. Because Uber Eats drivers and DoorDash dashers can soon be there to meet you — in 30 minutes or less.

There may be less competition and cheaper rents but there are certainly other costs such as increased driving distances to deliver food and finding ways to attract suburbanites to a physical location.

In the long run, it would be interesting to consider what it would take to raise the level of suburban food to that of major cities where awards, interest, and big name chefs seem to be much more common. Does fine dining and innovation in food require a density of restaurants, food workers, and well-heeled customers or could this all come together in some way in the suburbs? Could the suburbs of today who are often interested in developing entertainment and cultural districts really go after high-end and innovative food as a strategy to successfully compete against suburban fast food and chain restaurants?

Job growth in the food service industry

What does America make? Increasingly, at least in terms of the number of workers, the answer is food:

In 1990, manufacturing was almost three times larger than the food service industry. But restaurants have gradually closed the gap. At current rates of growth, more people will work at restaurants than in manufacturing in 2020. This mirrors the shift in consumer spending. Restaurants’ share of America’s food budget has doubled from 25 percent in the 1950s to 50 percent today.


Yet, as Derek Thompson notes, our national rhetoric is still stuck in the era of factories and manufacturing:

But the most important feature of the restaurant jobs boom is not what it may say about the future, but rather the fact that it is happening in the first place. Trump and other politicians often say they want to help the common worker. But then they talk about the economy as if it were cryogenically frozen sometime around 1957. The U.S. still makes stuff, but mostly it serves stuff. To help American workers, it helps to begin with an honest accounting of what Americans actually do.

The jobs landscape has experienced much change in the last half century. Certain sectors – such as the tech industry or manufacturing – consistently receive a lot of attention. But, could someone unite the interests as well as depict a group to the public at large that would include restaurant workers, service workers, and nurses (among other fields that have grown tremendously)?

Pizza Hut buildings with new uses

What happens to Pizza Hut buildings around the world once they are no longer home to the pizza chain?

Many of the vintage red roof buildings have been repurposed. Tran and Cahill, aren’t the first to notice or even document this change, but their photos nevertheless offer a fascinating glimpse at the weird ways these buildings are being used now.

They’ve found old huts reincarnated as Asian restaurants, dry cleaners, liquor stores, churches, and even funeral homes. Google Maps helped find locations, and online communities of hut fans have provided invaluable help since the started the project in 2013.

The pair, based in Sydney, has logged about 8,700 miles photographing almost 100 locations. They covered Australia and New Zealand before taking a great American “pizza hunt” road trip. They travelled through California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, just to name a few states. Wherever they went, Cahill and Tran made a point of getting to know the locals and getting the scoop on a building’s history. “In Chicago, we made a phone call to a business because we weren’t sure if it was a legitimate hut, and a very helpful store clerk gave us a full history of the building dating back to ’91,” Cahill says.

The fast food/restaurant experience is not just about the food but also includes the building and their architecture. Looking at the images from their book Pizza Hunt, it doesn’t take much imagine to them as functioning outlets of a global brand. I wonder if this previous architecture helps or hinders the new occupants. For example, does turning an old Pizza Hut building into a church (image 10/10) bring in more or less people? Does the Asian food (images 1/10 and 4/10) taste any different in such a building? I’m guessing the architecture and design may have little effect on later behavior and attitudes; perhaps this really says something about our approach in constructing functional, suburban buildings where one of the top priorities is that it can be easily adapted to numerous uses.