Restaurants may be businesses, but they are so much more than that.
It’s doubtful, for instance, that you’ll ever say to a loved one, “Hey, remember that box of envelopes we bought in 1990 at the office supply store? Good times!”
Because eating is such a social, communal act, and because both gatherings and the food we share can be so memorable, restaurants get into our hearts more than most ongoing concerns. A really good meal with friends or family becomes a special occasion.
So when that restaurant where you shared those memories closes, you can feel a personal loss. The scrapbook in your head is forced to turn a page.
Such is the case with this week’s closing of Al’s Family Restaurant in North Augusta, which closes a book on a beloved down-home-food institution that has created memories at 661 Atomic Road since 1978.
“For many years,” one commenter at AugustaChronicle.com wrote, “Al’s was where my mom wanted to go, anytime she had an opportunity. Last year we even had her 92nd birthday party there. Al’s made her favorite foods and Elvis even showed up to entertain. She was surprised and happy. The last thing she said as we were leaving was, ‘If I’m still around next year I want to do the same thing!’ I guess we will have to make another plan for this year ...”
Owner Butch Bone blamed the economy – which makes you wonder: If a 35-year fixture can fall prey to the moribund economy, what else is possible?
How about this: February is Wal-Mart’s worst start to a sales month in seven years “as payroll-tax increases hit shoppers already battling a slow economy.” That’s according to Bloomberg News, which obtained internal emails among Wal-Mart executives sweating month-to-date sales. In the emails, the phrase “total disaster” was used.
If a behemoth like Wal-Mart is tugging nervously at its metaphorical shirt collar, you know things are bad.
Let’s hope things get better. But there’s a chance they could get worse. Gasoline prices are spiking faster and earlier than usual this year, reducing discretionary income for an American public already trying to cut back. Health-care mandates are spooking many businesses, and rightly so. And the president is even stumping for higher business costs in the form of a raise in the minimum wage.
A survey of small businesses last month by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that 82 percent feel the country is on the wrong track. And that was before the precipitous rise in fuel prices or the talk of a minimum-wage increase. In every recent poll listed at RealClearPolitics.com recently, the percentage of Americans who think we’re on the right track is in the 30s.
As for the wage increase, “There’s no doubt in my mind that it would hurt the unemployment rate,” Chris Cunningham, president of the Augusta-area Wife Saver Inc. chain of independently owned and operated fast-food restaurant franchises told The Chronicle last week.
None of this even takes into account the larger picture, which is ominous in and of itself. Spending in Washington threatens to open the door to inflation, higher interest rates and even dangers to the dollar. The Federal Reserve’s money printing is currently keeping things going, creating what may be a misguided complacency or, to borrow a term, irrational exuberance on Wall Street.
Europe’s sovereign debt problems are hardly over, either – and U.S. leaders remarkably have put us on a similar path.
Even liberal-leaning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman worries that the 2008 economic collapse’s ripples “are being reinforced today by uncertainty and worry that we do not have our political house in order and, therefore, our tax, regulatory, pension and entitlement frameworks are all in play. ... It’s a tragedy. You can feel the economy wants to launch, but Washington is sitting on the national mood button.”
Friedman primarily blames conservatives, though he doesn’t explain how. But he allows that, “After the whipping the GOP took in the election, I believe there is now a group of Republican politicians and CEOs who would meet Obama in the middle, if the president showed he was ready to take on some of his base as well.”
We agree with Mr. Friedman that the president needs to reach out. National politics have rarely affected Americans so fundamentally and so locally.
Just ask customers of Al’s.