WRA Claims Half of Wisconsin Restaurants Could Close By End of May Due to Shutdown

WISCONSIN — The Wisconsin Restaurant Association president and CEO said that she believes up to half of all Wisconsin restaurants in the state could close as the state’s “Safer At Home” order continues until May 26th.

“This is an extinction level event for small businesses,” WRA president and CEO Kristine Hillmer said. “We’re estimating that without relief, we think that half of our restaurants could easily go out of business by the end of May.”

She said under normal circumstances, restaurants have small profit margins.

“For every dollar that comes into a restaurant, and this is on a normal day, 95 to 97 cents of that dollar is already spoken for in terms of food costs, staff costs, electricity, mortgage, overhead, anything that has to do with running a restaurant, so that means only 3 to 5 cents of that dollar is available for savings,” Hillmer explained.

Rick Lampton, who is a managing partner of seven establishments in Wisconsin and Minnesota, including in Superior, Duluth, and Grand Rapids, said sales across his businesses are down drastically.

“We are definitely down about 75% of our normal sales,” Lampton said. “It’s definitely been hard. When you get to be my age, you don’t get a lot of firsts anymore, and I get several every day.”

He said he doesn’t think as many as half of Wisconsin restaurants could close, but the ones with just a single location could be the most at-risk of losing it all.

“Maybe they were struggling before this happened, and this was the dagger that put them down,” he said.

With his businesses, Lampton said the location that is most vulnerable to closing is the 310 Pub in Canal Park, which closed during one of the bar and restaurant’s most bankable months, March Madness, and will suffer through the cancellations of summer’s biggest events like Grandma’s Marathon.

“Right now we don’t see having to close any,” Lampton said. “A couple are really close. Our Canal Park location’s gonna struggle because of all the events being cancelled down there, so that one would be the closest, but we’re very hopeful that we won’t have to close anything.”

He said his managing group had to lay off the majority of the 200 plus staff members between all the restaurants, but the federal small business loans are helping bring some back as they cook up takeout orders, create hand sanitizer, and work on renovation and cleaning projects.

“It’s a good program, it’s very challenging trying to execute it, the forgiveness part,” Lampton said. “We’re not sure we’ll meet the guidelines for that, but it’s still a good loan to keep our businesses going and keep people on payroll.”

Meanwhile, Hillmer suggested that instead of a statewide shutdown, the business closings should go off the number of cases by county in Wisconsin.

“When it’s based on numbers that are in Milwaukee, doesn’t seem like we’re really being very smart on the different sectors of our state,” she said. “So we would also love to see, can we do this on a county basis, can we use it on various different risk factors rather than one size fits all.”

When restaurants do reopen under Wisconsin’s new “Badger Bounce Back” program, dining in will look different, which means sales will still be lower than normal.

“It’ll be a long year of catch-up, that’s for sure,” Rick Lampton said. “This year’s done as far as we’re concerned. We’re already working on next year, so get through the motions and stay afloat, it’s tough out there.”

The WRA also hopes to see Wisconsin follow Minnesota’s decision to allow alcohol to-go with takeout orders to help restaurants’ revenue.

Hillmer said those who want to support restaurants should place takeout orders and buy gift cards directly through the businesses, and not third-party apps.

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