Local restaurateurs reflect on how COVID is leaving lasting changes in the hospitality industry | Food News | Spokane | The Pacific Northwest Inlander
Just days before what was supposed to be an announcement that Spokane County would be brought back to phase 2 restrictions due to a recent spike in coronavirus cases – instead, the county remains in phase 3 for at least the next two weeks – the owners of local restaurants felt, once again, thrown into limbo.
News of the potential rollback came as many began to increase staffing to meet an increase in demand for in-person meals, while also facing an unprecedented shortage of candidates.
Several owners have reflected, in their own words, on the trials and triumphs of the past 13 months, ranging from the permanent changes brought by the pandemic to what keeps them going. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.
EAT GOOD GROUP
This year has been difficult and has shown how fragile our hotel industry is. Many have not endured this, and many have almost failed and are still struggling. I think that was the wake-up call the industry needed. We have too long lived on too thin margins, which leaves us little to no room for times like these. We need to cut fat where we can, cut down on our operations, and be a little faster on the things that end up costing us money.
We’ve also looked for ways to make sure our staff are taken care of. Whether or not the pandemic and our current political climate have brought certain issues to light, we want to look at everything we do and try to do it in a more focused light. Asking things like: Are we treating our people well? Are we listening to our customers? Is our business sustainable the way it operates? Are we creating a better life for ourselves and for our staff?
From the start, the pandemic has been very difficult for us and other local small businesses. We all had to rotate and then rotate again and again. Initially at Downriver Grill we had to find the best way to make the transition by offering our take out menu. Before the pandemic, about 10% of our sales were to be made, so that was a big change for us. We focused on serving menu items that would travel well and maintain the best quality and consistency in the process. Some of the challenges we are currently facing are price increases from our suppliers and staffing challenges.
CRAFTS AND GATHERING
If we put aside all the loss of human life, jobs and businesses, there are a few things that stood out in restaurants.
The first is how restaurants and their importance to the community came to be. From local Facebook fundraising groups like Spokane Quaranteam, the many restaurant-focused grant projects, to the wonderful care the community has shown in buying take-out food, giving very generous tips and buying gifts. $ 1000 gift cards. There was so much love for us that it was humiliating. I feel like it brought us and our guests closer together, and these relationships will last a very long time.
The labor shortage will be a challenge our industry will feel for a long time to come. With so many employees in our industry losing their jobs multiple times during the year, many have simply given up on the instability and moved on to other industries. Now that we are able to sit completely outside and 50% indoors, we are seeing a huge boom in demand. We have just returned from our second best week. But we are sorely understaffed. While most of our former employees have returned, we reopen to the time of year when the volume is the highest.
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One thing that goes further is the shift in people’s perspective on the way they do things. We live in a country that’s proud enough to make it practical, and COVID has made it more convenient. Take the example of all food delivery services. But you can’t have restaurant quality food delivered to your home. When the food comes out of the oven, it is left to stand for a few minutes and served immediately. Serving things in a box is not the way the game is played. When you get home, it won’t be good.
Another could be the attitude of the people. People were afraid of others. I’ve seen people walking down the street and if they see someone without a mask, they jump in the street. While the only people who go to a restaurant are those who want to be with other people, they sometimes ask, “Can you sit us at a table over there?” It has brought a new dynamic, and I consider it harmful.
Staffing issues are also as serious as the pandemic. I don’t think people realize how difficult it is there. I can’t get people to come back to work. Many places aren’t open for breakfast or lunch because they can’t get staff, and a few aren’t open at all right now because of it.
ELK’S PUBLIC HOUSE, MOON HOUR, TWO SEVEN PUBLIC HOUSE, PORCH PUBLIC HOUSE
Our goal since the onset of COVID-19 has been, and will remain, to achieve a full return to normal as easily and quickly as possible. On a darker note, I think our industry will continue to be somewhat crippled due to the constant state of grueling uncertainty brought on by COVID-19.
Beyond the obvious, you never know when there will be a phase change, and your staff counts up to 50% and all of a sudden it could be 25%. We’ve seen some of our longer tenured employees who just decided to change gears, and I think a lot has to do with the underlying stress people are going through. Everyone is at their wit’s end. Customers are on the cutting edge which puts employees at ease, and it’s not a fun time to work in the industry.
Certainly government agencies have understood us better than ever before, resulting in significantly looser restrictions. There were some changes that should have been made anyway, such as the ability to expand patios and seating areas where it is reasonable to do so. There used to be a number of hurdles you had to overcome to get there, and I think that will continue to move forward.
LOBSTER BAR AT HIGH TIDE, ZONA BLANCA, TT’S BRASSERIE AND BBQ
One of the first pivot points we made was to start ordering online for each restaurant. During the first full stop if we hadn’t made this change, well, we would have just been sitting ducks. So that was really important to us, and it translated into better sales where we are now. TT’s was the pilot, and initially we narrowed it down to senior management only. We are working difficult, which made us realize that we had to make changes, that we were running the business far too heavily and that we could manage it better.
The other thing that’s really scary is that every week we have a threat from the governor saying “We’re probably going to push you back”, but we want to attract people because the demand is there. But if we are pushed back by 25%, will I have too many staff and now I can’t employ them anymore? It is this very great concern that I have. I really care about everyone on my team, and if all of a sudden we bring these people in because we need help and then the government turns around and shuts us down, it’s’ Oh shit, what have I done to their lives, and will they come back to work? We can’t really see past our own struggles, so it becomes more personal.
What we have tried to demonstrate is that we can offer all the benefits to all kitchen and reception staff, and that we can look after their health and safety as well as anyone else. And we can try to make so many customers feel safe here. We haven’t had any cases of COVID attributed to No-Li in over a year, and it took a diligent effort.
And then you approach and give until it hurts. I often get this question, “Why do you keep doing this?” It’s just what you should be doing. We are not the only ones; we are one of the many members of this community.
So what did the pandemic create? A humility and an understanding that we are all here together in some form or form and some have it much worse. We make craft beer, hard seltzer, and canned cocktails, and they are winning awards all over the world, but at the end of the day, does it really matter? If it’s the stimulus that helps all of these things happen, then that’s pretty cool. [Editor’s note: No-Li has donated about $300,000 to area nonprofits since the pandemic began.] ♦