Restaurant owners get candid about the various challenges they face in getting back to “normal”
The journey that restaurant owners and workers have endured over the last 14 months has been well documented — from having to make a case for outdoor dining and dealing with impossibly high diner expectations to handling mask enforcement when their spaces began to reopen. Such stories from restaurant owners and workers (and the wider industry conversations they’ve prompted) serve as a reminder of how hard it is to work in restaurants — this year, and always.
So we asked restaurant owners to get candid about it all, with a focus on where they’re at in this very moment of national reopening: Tiffany Derry of Roots Chicken Shak and forthcoming Roots Southern Table, both in Texas; Douglass Williams of Mida in Boston; and Michael Schall, the owner of Locanda Vini e Olii in Brooklyn.
Below are lightly edited excerpts from the conversation, part of our Eater Talks event series, as well as a full video recording. For restaurant owners looking for more helpful information, check our this explainer on the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund. And for diners looking for ways to support the restaurant community, check out Eater’s How to Help guide.
Restaurant employees have mixed feelings about going back to work.
Tiffany Derry: “I had an employee that we just hired that was making $8.75 an hour at his last restaurant for the last two years where he was considered an assistant manager… you can’t really do anything with that. So obviously, he was really happy to come on board [with us] where he would almost be making double of that us.
But the truth is, it’s not necessarily just about the money right now. I think there is a lack of trust within the industry, a fear of ‘I need to find something more stable, that won’t close down on me.’ And I think that people are realizing that they’re needing a lot more.”
Michael Schall: “It’s tough in New York. We were having trouble finding people for both front of house and back of house. Some people left the city, but I’ve talked to a few people who are just thinking they don’t want to work in restaurants anymore. But we’ve been able to maintain our employees. Through the winter, even before I knew what was going to happen, I knew we couldn’t afford to lose our kitchen team. So I said to them that I’d guarantee their salaries through the winter. Which is why I was pushing this grocery program and the meal kits — just finding things to keep them busy, whether doing a new paint job on our outdoor structure or just any way I could find hours for them to keep them. Because I knew once we got through it, we might not be able to get them back.”
Derry: “I do believe, though, that people will come back. I think that in a few months, it will settle and we will get an influx of people who are trying to work — and hopefully they don’t start jumping around more than they have in the past.”
The shutdown forced restaurant owners to rethink the old ways.
Schall: “We lost a few employees, but that coincided with us streamlining our operations. Pre-pandemic, for a full house, we used to have six to seven chefs in the kitchen, and now we have four; we used to have six to seven servers on the floor, and now we have four. Our restaurants been in operation for over 20 years, and it was a machine where everything was exactly where it should have been and it moved seamlessly. Then come March, it’s like a bomb went off. When we came back, it felt like we’re picking up the pieces of this old restaurant and figuring out: Do we want to put things back to how they were? Or might there be a better, more efficient way that we could offer service and still maintain hospitality and compassion?”
Douglass Williams: “COVID has taught us a lot about operations and about what’s needed and trimming the fat where we don’t need it. We were already pretty lean and mean, we thought we were this Little Engine That Could — and we still are. But now we have to grow up into a new version of ourselves.”
One thing restaurants are reexamining: third-party delivery services.
Williams: “[When the pandemic started] we already had Grubhub and all that stuff; it wasn’t a huge part of our sales but it didn’t need to be, because we had regular indoor dining. … Hopefully it’s not a part of our business forever, that we have to depend on as a main part of our sales. It got us through and it did its job during the pandemic; now that we’re coming out of it, we’re seeing the [share of revenue from third-party delivery] shrink back down as we’re seeing indoor dining increase.”
Schall: “I actually just made the decision about two weeks ago to get off of Grubhub, Seamless, Caviar, and Doordash. They were taking 20 percent, and as we’re getting busier now that it’s nicer out, my kitchen was getting backed up with all of these orders from those platforms where we’re making zero profit. Because 20 percent, if you’re lucky, is really your profit margin on an order. So why should my kitchen get backed up on all these things, even if, yes, I’m reaching customers? Now that we’re starting to see the other side, it’s like hold on, I don’t want to spend that much anymore, and there’s an alternative that is a lot more friendly to restaurants.”
Derry: “We’re always pushing everyone through our website, because that’s the best value for us versus them going through the other sites. I think you just have to figure out if it’s worth it for your business or not to use them. For us right now, it’s worth it, as it’s a large chunk of our business. And we’re just figuring out which sites we prefer to stay with.”
Reopening also means re-setting norms with customers.
Schall: “The customers are out of practice as well. There’s a lot of new rules that are new to everybody. So as much as we need them to follow the rules, we also need to try to approach them as compassionately as possible. To come together, as we’re all in this together, and still be able to provide hospitality feels different now, but I think it’s possible. We had to reinvent everything, from our menus to online ordering.”
Williams: “It’s about making it feel as safe and normal as it needs to be. We try to make it as good as we can for the person who feels the least comfortable in a given situation and try to base our decision of how to proceed off of how that person feels. I think that mindset had worked well for us. It’s less about how every person that walks through the door might feel about a [mask] mandate [or another policy]; it’s just about us as a community.”
Watch the entire panel conversation: