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Restaurant owner: Baltimore legislation to cap delivery app fees can’t come soon enough | COMMENTARY

Baltimore, MD--August 26, 2016--Greg Brown, right, and his wife Naijha Wright-Brown, left, own The Land Of Kush vegetarian restaurant. Barbara Haddock Taylor
Baltimore, MD--August 26, 2016--Greg Brown, right, and his wife Naijha Wright-Brown, left, own The Land Of Kush vegetarian restaurant. Barbara Haddock Taylor (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

At Land of Kush, our pandemic survival plan has been straightforward: Replace every empty table in our Mount Vernon dining room with a take-out order. Keep our employees on the payroll so they can continue to support their families and pay their bills. Stay in business long enough for the vaccine to do its job.

But every time a customer finds our menu and orders their takeout on a delivery app like Grubhub, DoorDash and Uber Eats, we get hit with a 30% surcharge. This is real money. This is serious.

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That means for a $20 vegan soul food order of our meatless ribs smothered in barbecue sauce, smoked collard greens, baked mac and “cheese” and cornbread, the app takes $6 off the top. That leaves $14 for us to cover all of our other expenses. After we buy our made-from-scratch food for $7 and pay our workers for $5, we are left with $2 to cover rent and utilities, meet our tax obligations and wring out every last cent for supplies and equipment and, God forbid, any unforeseen emergencies.

In a pandemic, every dollar matters. This is the math behind why so many restaurants are going out of business. We’re living on faith right now.

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We’ve always had delivery, but it really picked up once the pandemic hit. Delivery is making up almost all of our business at the moment. Customers who walk inside the restaurant to carry out their orders make up just 15 out of 100 orders. I’ve tried not to panic, but instead see how resourceful we can be to get Land of Kush and our cooks, cashiers and servers through this devastating time. We’ve had to rob Peter to literally pay Paul.

But the one-two punch of the lockdowns and the surge in orders through these popular delivery apps have made outlasting this outbreak harder with each passing day. Our failure to stay open would not just mean the loss of a dream for me and my husband. Going out of business will directly result in one more empty storefront on Eutaw Street, 14 employees losing their livelihood — and all of the devastating things that follow unemployment, such as families getting evicted, moms and dads feeling anxious and depressed, and more people stretching the capacity of our social safety net.

When we heard about the plan by the Baltimore City Council to cap at 15% the fees that these delivery apps charge, it truly felt like a lifeline to the struggling small, locally owned restaurants like Land of Kush. This legislative solution cannot come soon enough.

This bill, expected to be filed today, isn’t pushing our losses onto a struggling business. At the same time that we’re fighting for our very survival, these apps are seeing their revenues explode.

The council’s legislation also will protect our customers and local delivery drivers by blocking the out-of-town business interests from pushing any profit losses onto them.

By temporarily cutting the surcharge in half, the council is putting money back into our local businesses, dollars that will determine whether the families that call Baltimore home will make it to the other side of this crisis with the lives they worked hard to build still intact. Keeping our staff has been a constant battle that keeps me awake at night. We need to keep these employees.

We first opened our restaurant a decade ago this month, and over time we’ve used the meals we serve to foster a social movement in the Black community. Our vegan food — chickun salad, “crab” cakes, black-eyed pea fritters, candied yams — is the sort of cuisine that can reverse health disparities long suffered by African Americans.

Land of Kush — named for the place in ancient Africa that is now known as Ethiopia — looks to connect people to natural concepts and grains lost in the African diaspora. Dishes made with delicious seasonings, curries and gravies enhance plant-based food and mock meats and teach people how to eat from the Earth. We are delivering the truth to people who look like us.

With our commitment to hiring from within the community, efforts to get people eating healthier, and the work we’re doing with our nonprofit, the Black Vegetarian Society of Maryland, we mean much more to the city than just another place to get a good meal.

We appreciate the legislative solution the council has put forward. It improves the odds dollar-for-dollar that we will actually survive this pandemic. Small businesses are the city’s heartbeat. If we fail, what does that say?

Naijha Wright-Brown (naijha@thelandofkush.com) owns Land of Kush with her husband and head chef Gregory Brown.

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