Restaurants Lead the Way. They Always Have.

Many comparisons between COVID-19’s economic fallout and the Great Depression are overdone, but there’s one we want to share. It’s a story of perseverance, and we believe it illustrates perfectly the power of the foodservice industry.

If there was ever a worse time to open a restaurant than during COVID-19, it was the Great Depression. But that didn’t stop Clifford Clinton.

A devout Christian from California, Clifford Clinton spent his boyhood years helping blind children in an orphanage in China. While in China, he witnessed hunger and starvation, and he vowed to help hungry people if he ever could.

In 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, Clifford did just that. He opened Clifton’s Cafeteria—a piece of Los Angeles history that didn’t close its doors for good until 2018. If customers couldn’t afford to pay the prices at Clifton’s, they didn’t have to. It was a philanthropy that served Clifton’s well throughout decades and multiple restaurants.

Penny Restaurants Kept America Fed

Clifton's Cafeteria

Clifton’s Cafeteria Looking South, by Downtowngal. CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Clifford wasn’t the only one who opened a restaurant during the Great Depression. Restaurant owners met America’s needs by creating penny restaurants. The Penny Restaurant in New York City charged a penny for each item on the menu, at cost then. That way, a five-course meal cost a nickel. Foundations ran or supported many penny restaurants, and they cropped up in cities all over the U.S. Clifton’s was so popular that it became known as “The Cafeteria of the Golden Rule”, and it fed 10,000 people for free in one 90-day period. In response, Clifford used a nearby basement to open the Penny “Caveteria,” which fed more than two million people in two years.

Clifford would go on to fund the development of a protein supplement (MultiPurpose Food) and a nonprofit (Meals for Millions, now the Freedom From Hunger Foundation) to combat hunger on a global scale. He was involved in fighting LA’s organized crime, and he was spied on and survived a bombing attempt on his life.

For millions of people, Clifford was a ray of light in a dark time. Like Clifford and other restaurateurs, you’ve innovated to meet the needs of your customers. After all, Americans can neither work nor fight a virus on an empty stomach.

You built apps or created partnerships with food delivery service providers so your customers could continue getting food from their favorite grocery store or restaurant. You have pioneered new business models, such as ghost kitchens or virtual restaurants, and scaled them up rapidly. You’ve expanded outdoor eating, offered curbside pickup, served alcohol to go, revised your indoor seating, and worked to meet the changing health and safety demands of a pandemic. You’ve also worked to keep Americans employed during an economic upheaval.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

As of this writing, more than 30% of Americans are vaccinated against COVID-19 and consumer confidence is at its highest level since the pandemic came to America.

Restaurant sales in March soared to $62.2 billion—higher than at any other time during the pandemic—according to the National Restaurant Association. At the same time, restaurant job openings are also on the uptick but still below pre-pandemic levels.

And almost every state in the U.S. is easing its restrictions and some have even lifted restrictions altogether, according to USA Today.

Without a doubt, America is slowly but steadily reopening, and the foodservice industry leads the way.

Things will be different, for sure. Consumer shifts to delivery and online shopping will remain. But, restaurants will continue to grow, adapt, and evolve to meet the needs of their customers.

That innovative spirit is what drove our founder and CEO, Jon Sill, to start Inno-Pak almost 30 years ago. And it’s what continues to drive our company forward today. If you’re like us, you’re cautiously optimistic about the future even if you don’t know what’s to come. But there is one thing you can count on—we’ll be by your side while you keep America fed.

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