Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Align Public Strategies, a full-service public affairs and creative firm that helps corporate brands, governments and nonprofits navigate the outside world and inform their internal decision-making. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management.
The last few weeks have unleashed unprecedented disruption of the restaurant industry and, in some cases, outright destruction. Many companies will emerge from this crisis looking significantly different, while others may not emerge at all. And, independent operators all over the country are watching their life’s work disappear before their eyes. My small business is facing the same reality. It’s hard to imagine what lies ahead for all of us, not just the industry but even more importantly, our families and our country.
Here’s the thing. We will get through it one way or another as long as we, difficult as it may seem, keep a collective eye toward a better future.
As has been proven throughout time, great things can ultimately emerge from the most trying of times, as long as we can keep our minds open to that possibility. I am a history nerd of the highest order and at really dark times — 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, stock market crashes and now a pandemic — I remind myself of one of the more unheralded stories of American perseverance.
Many people either don’t remember from their history classes or lack an appreciation for how in the early days of the American Civil War, the Union was on the precipice of collapsing and a Confederate victory seemed imminent. With the collapse of the Union mere days away, one of the most important pieces of legislation ever to emerge from the U.S. Congress was passed and signed into law by President Lincoln.
The story is as follows: In 1862, (and for many years prior) a little-known Congressman from Vermont named Justin Morrill was tenaciously pushing an education bill he had written. But Rep. Morrill was continually rebuffed by Congressional leaders legitimately preoccupied with other more pressing issues like the Confederate army camped just a few miles away across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va., waiting to invade Washington, D.C. You know, just little things like that. Undaunted, Rep. Morrill went to the House floor day after day waving his little education bill and day after day getting chased away by incredulous colleagues astonished that he could be so oblivious to the larger crisis at hand. But, he kept coming. And coming. And coming. Finally, in a fit of desperation to rid themselves of this persistent pest, they passed his little bill which came to be known as the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862.
This Act essentially established the greatest system of public colleges and universities that the world had ever — and still has ever — seen. It ultimately created the most educated national population on the planet, which birthed and has sustained America’s place as the world’s greatest industrial and economic superpower.
I graduated from one of those “land grant” schools - the University of Maryland - and if you attended any one of the countless large public universities in this country, you likely did as well. This act literally remapped the future of the country at a time when many thought the country had no future at all. Think about that.
The point is not to demagogue or be sappy. The point is that we have to deal smartly, responsibly and effectively with the crisis at hand. But there will be a tomorrow and we have to prepare equally for that.
One thing I have learned from my 25 years in the industry is that there isn’t a more resilient group of people anywhere than restaurant operators. Despite the serious public health and financial crisis before us, as long as we continue to prioritize the health and well-being of our employees and customers and continue to be responsible leaders in our communities, we, like Rep. Morrill, will be on the right side of history.
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