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Local Restaurant Owner Says Enhanced Unemployment Insurance Is 'Top Of Mind'

Bluebird Barbecue, a white building with string lights on its eaves, in the snow
Abagael Giles
Sue Bette, owner and founder of Bluebird Barbecue in Burlington, says enhanced unemployment insurance is crucial to help restaurant owners and employees get through the winter.

Restaurants that rely on dine-in customers have had a rough year, to say the least. Indoor dining is still allowed in Vermont, but some establishments have chosen to offer only takeout and delivery or they've closed altogether – some for the foreseeable future and some permanently.

And the winter months are just beginning. Outdoor dining is a challenge in the cold weather. Restaurants aren't allowed to seat customers to their full capacity, and gathering indoors is discouraged by public health officials. So what might the next few months look like for the restaurant industry here in Vermont?

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Sue Bette, founder of Bluebird Barbecue in Burlington and president of the Bluebird Hospitality Group. Bette is also one of the co-founders of a group called Vermont Independent Restaurants, which advocates on behalf of the industry, and they spoke about what's ahead for Vermont restaurants. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So I want to just sort of take stock of the restaurant industry and how it's been impacted this year. How would you sum up the toll that the pandemic has taken on restaurants in Vermont?

Sue Bette: I would say that a fair assessment is: significantly distressed. We've kind of been at the center of the pandemic challenges, as far as most of our work being about gathering and bringing people together. And what the pandemic has kind of shown us, is that is of danger to public health. And over the last eight months, we've been under pretty significant restrictions, which has made our business model just very difficult and complex.

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For your business, how have you adapted or changed what you're doing since since the pandemic started?
We closed down right around that March 18 date for a couple of months, while we were kind of learning what the what the challenges of the pandemic would show us.

"My fear is that without action this week, we'll see a lot of restaurants close permanently." - Sue Bette, founder of Bluebird Barbecue

When it became clear that the virus wasn't transmitted through food or through surfaces, we made a decision to reopen under the to-go format.

We're very lucky because barbecue is to-go friendly, so it's a model that that works for us. That being said, over the period, our sales are down year-over-year about 60%.

Has takeout and delivery been enough to stay afloat?

Well, I can't say enough about the Vermont community, because the support has been amazing. I hear every day, folks are saying that they're trying to do their best to support local restaurants, and that really makes a difference.

Without the federal relief and without state relief, we wouldn't be able to operate under the takeout model. But with the federal relief that came early on with PPP and most notably with the state of Vermont taking action through the grant system, we've been able to patch together an operation that allows us to keep going, employ our team members and kind of limp along.

Some restaurants have made the choice to close down for the coming months. Do you expect that those who have completely closed will be able to reopen in the spring?

I think what's important to kind of just highlight is that restaurants since day one have been kind of presented with this double bind. You know, you operate within the conditions to keep your business afloat, but that has a public health impact potentially.

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If you make the decision to close, you know, you're looking at layoffs and the potential loss of your business.

I think without robust federal aid coming in, it'll be hard to ensure that our restaurant industry is preserved.

In terms of how that aid could be targeted, I mean, what would be most useful? Is it loans, is it grants? Is it direct support to the workers that have been laid off? What exactly would you like to see?

Having laid off our full team in March, but knowing very quickly that there was an enhanced UI [unemployment insurance] benefit that would support them so they wouldn't fall into severe distress, I think that's top of mind for all operators.

Especially here in Vermont, if we're looking at the winter months ahead, maybe some hibernation would be the best outcome. Knowing that your team's OK and their well-being was taken care of through an enhanced UI has to be number one.

Sue, if we were to check in with you again, say in March, what would you expect the state of the industry to be then, a few months from now?

Really, I think that all depends on what happens in Washington this week. My fear is that without action this week, we'll see a lot of restaurants close permanently.

My biggest hope for March is that we're all still here and that the work continues.

We have an incredibly innovative and forward thinking dining scene, and I'd like to see that carry on and be celebrated.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp@TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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