Delaware Public Media’s Tom Byrne and contributor Eileen Dallabrida discuss restaurants’ ongoing efforts to bounce back from COVID-related issues
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jay Deputy’s weekly routine was to dine out four or five times a week. Even though the masks are off and the restaurants are operating, he’s still spending more time at his home in North Wilmington.
He now dines out once a week, always making sure he can be seated away from high-traffic areas. A few times a week, he orders takeout from the restaurant to enjoy at home.
“I’m more insular, I think more about what I do,” he says. “I’m happy working on jewelry making and listening to Mozart or watching a documentary on Netflix.”
More than a third of diners remain hesitant to eat out, according to a survey by Morning Consult, which tracks consumer and economic trends. Yet surveys indicate that diner comfort levels are on the rise. As of the second week of February, 64% of Americans said they felt comfortable dining indoors at a restaurant, the highest rate since early December when the omicron variant first appeared.
The Delaware Restaurant Association (DRA) says the industry is understaffed, with 4,300 fewer restaurant workers in the first state than in December 2019, when restaurants employed 53,400 workers. Restaurant owners are also being burned by inflation, currently at its highest level in 40 years. Meat prices have jumped 14% over the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Bringing Home Bacon now costs 18% more; beef prices rose 19%.
“It’s dangerous to see restaurants open and think that everything is fine and profits have returned.”
Carrie Leishman, CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association,
A shortage of workers at meatpacking plants and dairy and fresh produce processing facilities is contributing to sporadic shortages of ingredients ranging from chicken to heavy cream to strawberries. In addition, it is more difficult to transport goods from one place to another. The grizzled ranks of lorry drivers – an average age of 60 when the pandemic hit in 2020 – have been thinned by 60,000 early retirements.
“It’s dangerous to see restaurants open and think all is well and profits have returned. Industry subsidies and relief programs in 2020 have helped, but the reality for restaurants is that conditions businesses are more difficult now than they were a year ago at the height of the pandemic,” says Carrie Leishman, CEO of the association.
A recent survey of restaurateurs reflects current challenges in the industry:
- 63% of operators say their companies have accumulated additional debt since the pandemic began in March 2020.
- 42% of operators say their restaurant has fallen behind on expenses.
- 80% of operators say their restaurant is less profitable now than it was before the pandemic.
- 74% reported slower customer traffic in 2021 than in 2019.
In the survey, 100% of business owners who received grants from the Federal Restaurant Recovery Fund said the money made it more likely they would be able to stay in business during the pandemic. The National Restaurant Association estimates the programs saved 2,000 jobs in Delaware. Industry advocates are now pressing the Biden administration to replenish the $26.8 billion emergency fund, but the president’s economic advisers are pushing back on the $40-60 billion proposed price.
Meanwhile, restaurateurs are coming up with a complex recipe that includes reducing opening hours, modifying menus to deal with ingredient shortages and expanding outdoor dining options.
BBC Tavern and Grill in Greenville has installed two indoor air filtration systems, one that works with UV lamps and a second system that uses ionization to kill germs. The restaurant has outfitted a covered outdoor terrace with fire pits and electric heaters to accommodate customers who prefer to dine outdoors where the risk of contracting the coronavirus is minimal. The toilets are disinfected every 15 minutes.
Owner David Dietz has made changes to the menu to reflect food shortages and inflated prices, and will pass some of those costs on to customers when the spring menu rolls out in April. BBC no longer serves its popular crab cakes. “To get the quality of crab we want, we would have to charge $32 for a crab cake sandwich,” he says. “We just can’t do that.”
He’s also struggled with higher prices on items that customers don’t see on their plates. “Before, gloves were $19 a case. They went up to $90 a case and we were using more gloves than ever,” he says.
“We’re paying dishwashers $16 an hour, cooks up to $22 an hour, and our managers are earning more than ever. If I don’t pay them, someone else will.
David Ditz, owner of BBC Tavern and Grill
The price of gloves has gone down. The cost of labor continues to rise.
“We’re paying dishwashers $16 an hour, cooks up to $22 an hour, and our managers are earning more than ever. If I don’t pay them, someone else will,” Dietz says.
Christina Kelly, who works in sales, says restaurants play a vital role in nurturing customer relationships. “My livelihood depends on working closely with people and I have to meet in person to do that,” she says.
She says diners are willing to put up with a little inconvenience to ensure a safe experience. When Kelly met a friend with underlying health conditions for a bite to eat, they bundled up in hats and coats and brought blankets so they could dine outside, where COVID risk is extremely low. .
After a two-year pandemic, Kelly says customers don’t care if issues in the supply chain have knocked their favorite dishes off the menu or if it’s taking a few extra minutes for their food to arrive. “We all know that restaurants have staffing issues and people are used to waiting a little longer,” she says.
Across the state, restaurateurs are toasting a new revenue stream, the passage of a bill that makes permanent a pandemic measure allowing take-out cocktails and other adult beverages. Any liquor-licensed establishment can sell liquor for takeout, curbside, or drive-thru with the purchase of at least $10 worth of food.
Despite this boost, a number of restaurateurs see the pandemic as a good time to hand over the reins to someone else. In Rehoboth, longtime restaurateurs Bill and Lois Klemkowsi put out the burners at Jake’s Seafood House, a beach staple for more than 30 years. Mexican restaurant Agave, whose compact location in Lewes draws long lines of diners, has taken over Jake’s space, which comfortably seats 300 people.
On Fenwick Island, Matt Kern, a chef appointed by James Beard, and his wife Karen are the new owners of One Coastal, a farm-fresh restaurant with a dedicated clientele. The founders, Scott and Carlie Carey, were frustrated by the lack of staff and decided to move on. Friends connected the couples to reach an amicable agreement. One Coastal closed in January for a minor renovation and began serving the first week of February.
Elizabeth and Vince Moro, longtime customers of the Centerville Café, now operate the bistro, which was founded by their friend Susan Teiser in 2003. Although they had never worked in the hospitality industry before, Elizabeth says they were ready to Try the challenge.
“We’ve managed people, we’ve managed businesses, and we love to cook,” she says.
Although they have not been affected by the labor shortage, they are feeling the effect of disruptions in the supply chain. Part of their action plan is to reduce their environmental impact by minimizing single-use plastic.
“I found a small sandwich box that is green. But when I went back to order more, there were none,” she says. “Are you trying to find containers for the soup?” Impossible.”
They also juggled food shortages, including a regular customer’s favorite Chai tea. When dressings were not available, they made their own. Same for quinoa. “It tastes better and it costs less,” she says.
“I found a small sandwich box that is green. But when I went back to order more, there were none. Trying to find containers for soup? Impossible.”
Elizabeth Moro, Centerville Cafe,
The Moros are also developing new sources of income, such as farm-to-table dinners. They are considering applying for a liquor license. This spring, they will plant tomatoes and herbs behind the coffee. They have established a small internal market where they sell milk, eggs, cheese and other staples. “It’s convenient for our customers and allows us to circulate fresh produce,” she says.
Smitty McGee’s, a raw bar, restaurant and sports lounge in Selbyville, closed in early February after 33 years. The Irish-themed restaurant announced its departure on Facebook, evoking responses ranging from nostalgic reminiscences of Smitty’s wings to anger at customers stuck with worthless gift cards. The location will not remain empty for long. Fins Ale House will debut in April.
As for the deputy, he recently ventured to a party where guests presented vaccination cards and had their temperatures taken at the door. He often frequents El Camino in North Wilmington, asking for seats in the bar, where plexiglass barriers separate the cabins. He calls ahead to make sure a booth is available.
“If a restaurant has free seats, I give up eating there. I exercise caution,” he says.