Optimism and excitement were the defining feelings for chef Amy Sins as the calendar approached 2020. As owner of Langlois, a New Orleans restaurant that offers dinner-party-style experiences complete with communal seating and chefs telling stories as they cook your food, Sins was on par to hit her highest revenue numbers in nearly a decade. Her business, which primarily serves corporate events, was booked solid.
Within just a few months, all of that changed.
“When mid-March 2020 hit, because our clients pay in advance, we refunded a year’s worth of revenue,” remembers Sins. “I cried a lot.”
The threat to her business quickly inspired her to adapt and pivot. She and her team changed the business model by offering virtual culinary events, converting the restaurant’s kitchen into a television network-style studio. The move won some of her lost business back and kept Langlois afloat until she was able to reopen in-person seating, protocols permitting, and opened her eyes to the reality that despite how great things are going, everything can change.
“Something that is on the minds of every restaurant owner is, ‘OK, we are doing 50% capacity right now, but is this viable?’” says Sins. “Every restaurant owner I know is just jumping without a parachute and hoping not to crash. Uncertainty is the trend.”
More than 2,200 miles west in Oakland, California, Tanya Holland is also navigating the wild ride that is restaurant ownership during COVID-19. She is the award-winning chef and owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen, and says a conversation around industry trends is incomplete without talking about the issues within the industry that need to change. The pandemic has highlighted the plight of independent restaurants, in particular, that have low access to resources and capital.
“And prior to COVID, the restaurant business was pretty fragile and had small profit margins,” she says. “There are a lot of issues with diversity, equity, inclusion and pay; the whole tipping system. A lot of those issues have bubbled to the surface. COVID has brought to light the struggles restaurants face, and many of us are looking for solutions. Wealth and access have stayed in the hands of the few, namely big restaurant groups. Places like mine are trying to figure out how to break through the system.”
In early 2019, Holland moved her restaurant to Oakland from San Francisco, and changed part of her business model from a diner to a full-service eatery without takeout as an option. When the pandemic hit a year later, she switched to offering takeout. Today her restaurants is open at 50% indoor capacity, and she constantly adjusting as California further reopens.
“I’m not sure I’m going to [re-open] 100%,” she says. “Whereas some restaurants can afford ionizer machines and plexiglass dividers, we cannot.”
Financial resources are a huge part of the conversation in how restaurants are able to (or not able to) thrive during the pandemic. According to Holland, recovery depends a lot on how a restaurant was doing (and saving money) pre-pandemic.
“If you had just hit your stride like us, it’s been rough, but if you had a good nest egg, you likely did remodels during COVID and now have things like luxurious parklets to attract outdoor diners,” she says. “There is no continuity to anyone’s experiences right now.”
Many restaurants have taken to offering meal kits, produce boxes that allow for food vendors to continue selling even when the same amount of product isn’t being served in-house, and to-go cocktails.
The experiences of Holland and Sins highlight a new reality for many restaurant owners trying to grapple with the lingering pandemic—two key ingredients for success are agility and adaptability. These mindsets may help restaurant owners thrive as staffing challenges and patron safety continues to shape the landscape.
The lack of workforce availability has become perhaps the most pressing challenge facing restaurant owners. Since the pandemic, establishments are struggling to fill postings.
“There is a big question around who is coming back to work in restaurants,” says Kristen Loken, Bay Area-based hospitality and lifestyle photographer and author of Food People Are The Best People, which includes interviews with more than 130 chefs conducted during the pandemic. “Chefs are really asking themselves if people are going to come back. Some servers, for example, have taken up passion projects and found other sources of income. There are so many layers to this onion.”
Reasons for the worker shortage are multi-fold. Many workers—2 million lost their jobs during March and April 2020 alone, according to Eater.com—are fed up with the instability of the industry since the pandemic began and safety is a major concern. It's been widely reported that line cooks have had some of the highest mortality rates to COVID among essential workers due to lack of distancing.
While some restaurant owners are combating this shortage by raising wages and offering benefits like health care and paid sick leave, those incentives just aren't enough for large numbers of workers to come back.
"Even with more pay, workers are asking themselves what will happen if something changes, if there is another outbreak, if the rules in their town change," says Sins. "They are thinking to themselves that they don't want to be in that position again."
Another contributing factor to the worker shortage, says Sins, is the increased communication between former staffers on social media about the environments at a variety of restaurants.
"Communication has increased since COVID for sure," she says. "People are talking about various places and what it was like to work there. On the whole, I think if as a restaurant owner you have a track record of being a great employer, you are having a bit of an easier time attracting workers back versus if you had areas where you needed to improve as a manager."
Consumers looking to be as safe as possible when going back to their favorite restaurants may want to consider outdoor dining options, using hand sanitizer as often as possible, wearing a mask when not eating (including when a server approaches the table), and sticking with small groups of people.
All of these considerations, legally, are handled state-by-state and change frequently. The CDC has a page on considerations for restaurant and bar operators that includes lowest risk activities such as getting food through a drive-through or takeout, and the highest risk as sitting indoors at tables not spaced at least six feet apart.
Langlois’ Sin sees digital menus as a safety precaution that is here to stay, especially for casual restaurants. Fine dining restaurants, she says, might still print menus but not use fancy paper because of the cost. But for her, safety comes down to personal responsibility when she goes out to eat.
“I think it is important for diners to be part of the solution,” she says, adding that purchasing gift cards for later use is another way to monetarily support dining establishments. “One of the first times I went out to dinner, I felt so comfortable that I stood up to talk to the bartender and realized I didn’t have my mask on. I had to stop and check myself; I hadn’t been out in the world for a long time and I had to remember that it isn’t the same. It is so easy to get comfortable and just enjoy your meal. But it matters to think about the safety of everyone around you.”
Photo: Getty Images