‘We’re not going anywhere’; Restaurants cling to life after COVID-19’s devastating impact on industry

Stock image | Photo by undefined/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As hundreds of small business owners across the state grapple with the mounting losses suffered in the wake of the pandemic, the restaurant and hospitality industry may be the hardest hit with a series of devastating blows, forcing smaller eateries to close their doors while others offer curbside service to stay afloat.

Stock image | Pixaby, St. George News

Restaurants and fast-food stores began stepping up their in-store cleanliness efforts and forming crisis teams during the initial stages as many prepared for the worst.

For some, the worst came in an email sent by Gov. Gary Herbert on the night of March 17, ordering statewide restrictions to close dine-in options at restaurants and bars by 11:59 p.m. the following day to help stop the spread of the virus — an order restaurants and eateries across the state were given 24 hours to comply with.

The order stated the closures would be reassessed after two weeks, but in-door dining remained off-limits four weeks later when the governor extended the order on April 9.

On Friday, Herbert announced a tentative return to a limited form of in-house dining as early as May 1, albeit with six-foot distance between customers and a health check of both employees and patrons upon entry.

Even in the best of times, restaurants are tough businesses to operate — with more than half of them failing during the first year alone. Add to that the abrupt halt of dining-in due to the restrictions associated with the pandemic, coupled with a work-from-home labor pool that has all but eliminated the dining-out crowd for traditional and fast-food restaurants.

Jeff Germain, owner of Chef Hog’s Oyster Bar & Grill in SunRiver and a number of food trucks that operate locally, said that when he received notification that all dine-in operations were suspended it “was devastating” – as was notifying his employees, many of which called the following day to volunteer to help out until the ban was lifted.

A similar experience was shared by a general manager of a restaurant chain that operates two stores locally, who preferred to remain anonymous. She told St. George News that notifying her staff of more than 50 servers, cooks and service employees that all in-house dining was suspended, particularly with such short notice, was one of “the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do as a manager.”

“I’ve cried more in the last few weeks over these employees than I have during any other time I can remember,” she said.

While a few of the cooks are still on the schedule with limited hours for to-go orders, she said a majority of them were laid off. Since the hours and cook staff positions were limited, a number of the employees who had a second job or were able to afford it gave whatever hours they would have had to the cooks who had families or lacked any other income, a gesture she found “very heartening,” she said.

Staff at Chef Hog’s Oyster Bar & Grill in SunRiver preparing to-go orders for Easter dinner, St. George, Utah, April 13, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Jeff Germain, St. George News

She also said that many of the employees put off applying for unemployment under the assumption the suspension would be lifted within a couple of weeks the Governor’s office stating “the order will be reassessed at the end of this two-week period.”

Those employees applied only after the two-week period had passed and the suspensions remained in place, she said, which put them a few weeks behind. She also said that all employees were paid any vacation pay accrued as soon as the suspension took effect.

Many of Germain’s employees also applied for unemployment, as was evidenced by the stack of paperwork he’s received from Workforce Services over the course of the last several weeks.

Germain also said that several of his employees called the day after the order was issued and volunteered to help out during the dine-in suspension while he applied for the temporary assistance being offered to sustain the business until the restrictions were lifted.

“In their minds, they chose to wait it out with us with the hope the business can come back,” he said.

He went on to say that Easter Sunday was big for Chef Hog’s Oyster Bar & Grill when the restaurant received more than 400 take-out orders on that day alone. The orders were called in primarily by Sun River residents, he added.

“So that community really saved us. I mean they really did.”

As far as business goes, both reported an 80-90% drop in business, which is supported by research conducted by Pymnts.com that was released in a report last week revealing an 85% reduction in the number of people dining in at sit-down restaurants nationwide since the pandemic began.

Changes have come in the wake of the pandemic for all local eateries that have had to absorb the costs to continue operating under the restrictions, including one local restaurant that changed operations during the pandemic to allow for orders to be picked up directly from windows facing the parking lot to make it more user-friendly for their customers. A number of establishments included coupons with every to-go order to promote repeat business.

A move to help displaced restaurant workers came when a partnership formed between Xetava Gardens Café in Kayenta and Switchpoint Community Resource Center, according to an announcement issued by Xetava Garden’s owner, Greg Federman, on April 8.

Stock image | Photo by Olaf Broker/Pixabay, St. George News

Federman first set up a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $10,000 to turn the cafe into a place where displaced workers could pick up food and household supplies until they can return to work, and then realized more could be done through a partnership. shortly thereafter he partnered with Switchpoint, which provides temporary shelter and support for the homeless community in Washington County, and together they collaborated with over 20 nonprofit partners and local government agencies to offer services and resources onsite.

Federman works directly with Switchpoint to purchase items for restaurant workers through the food pantry, and restaurant workers in need of assistance are being asked to preregister online. 

Uncertain future 

The virus-related crisis has forced consumers to adopt new habits surrounding dining at restaurants and eating in general, which poll data released this week suggests that those behaviors might have long-lasting impacts for restaurants even after the current threat is eliminated.

On March 26, just shy of two weeks after President Donald Trump declared COVID-19 to be a national emergency, the National Restaurant Association announced that 3% of restaurants were closed for good and could be joined by another 11% by the end of the month. The association predicted that as many as 7 million industry jobs could be eliminated and losses could exceed more than $225 billion in sales over the second quarter of 2020.

In Utah, some local restaurants are preparing for the soft opening that is expected to take place by the first of May, some by maintaining an empty table between each seated table. But the future remains uncertain.

When asked, Germain said that while there have been drastic changes during this unprecedented time, it could be a while before things get back to normal. He also said that some things may never be the same.

Even so, he said, he looks forward to the future, saying that business will return. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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