The coronavirus pandemic and recent relaxation of social-distancing restrictions have caused a seismic shift in the restaurant business. People are going out to eat in droves at the same time food costs are skyrocketing and restaurants are being forced to cut hours due to hiring difficulties.
Iconic Cache Valley restaurateur Saboor Sahely can tell you all about it. In fact, he told me all about it this week when I took the suggestion of a Herald Journal reader and gave the owner of Angie’s restaurant a call.
The reader was especially concerned about why Angie’s recently stopped doing dinner on Sunday nights.
“Do you know what’s up?” she asked in an email. “I hope it’s just a fleeting thing with Saboor not having enough employees, much like the rest of the food industry. Like many in the community, we love Angie’s and never thought they would close. Not even a day a week.”
Well, she answered her own question. It is a staffing issue all right, but whether it’s a fleeting thing is another matter.
“We’re hoping we’ll be able to resume our pre-pandemic hours, but it’s a struggle,” Saboor told me, explaining that even with substantial increases in pay, it’s been hard to attract and retain workers. “We are constantly rebooting, so to speak, and getting more people into the system with the hope that we can reopen that shift, but as of today it doesn’t look like it.”
What landed the restaurant industry in this predicament is a complex set of circumstances, as Saboor sees it. Although a popular narrative on the nationwide worker shortage is that enhanced unemployment benefits are to blame, Saboor chalks this up to only about 10% of the restaurant job applicant drought and cites a number of other factors in the economy as the main drivers of the trend.
“I honestly believe it’s a more complicated thing,” he said. “What happened, for lack of a better word, is that during the pandemic the economy went into hibernation somewhat because the production stopped in most sectors, and as soon as the pandemic was somewhat over with, the economy went into full gear, manufacturing started reopening, construction started booming, and every company from retail to manufacturing started hiring again.”
Coupled with the sudden high demand for workers everywhere has been an exodus of workers from the restaurant business, which all of us who’ve ever held jobs in dining rooms and kitchens know can be tough work. Saboor put it this way:
“With the difficulties of the pandemic, many of those who had been with the industry for a long time said, ‘You know what, I’m going to move on.’ There’s been a shift with this industry. People are basically moving on to other jobs up and down every sector from meatpacking to cookie-making to the high-tech jobs. Amazon in Salt Lake, for example, is hiring hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of workers. And then the delivery business started. A lot people do the Uber delivery or the DoorDash delivery, and this gives them some flexibility with hours, so they decide to just do that instead of standing behind a dish machine scrubbing pots and pans.”
That statement reminded me of several dish-washing jobs I had as a teenager, one of which I shamefully failed to show up for without notice on just the second night. I learned pretty soon there’s almost anything I’d rather do than stand behind a dish machine scrubbing pots and pans, especially in a super-busy restaurant.
And super busy is what may local restaurants have become since life returned to something like normal in the something-like-a-post-pandemic period we are now experiencing in Cache Valley. It’s as if everyone is trying to make up for all those months of limited dining, mask requirements and assorted other buzzkills.
The Center Street Grill, another popular Logan restaurant that has earned its stripes with good food and service, had to scale back hours like Angie’s. And also like Angie’s, when they’re open they’re usually slammed with customers.
This past Tuesday night my family took a former neighbor to the Beehive Grill for dinner, thinking we’d have a quiet evening out, and it was packed. Wondering if a convention or something was going on in town, I asked one of the dozens of people waiting to be seated what the rush was about, and he said the place has been like that every night lately.
“Definitely the numbers are up when it comes to sales, but the biggest challenge is staffing for it,” Saboor said. “Every single restaurant that I talk to, they are dealing with the same phenomena.”
If you’ve ever been to Angie’s — which I’m guessing every single reader of this column has — you’ve probably noticed the staff consists of a lot of long-time employees, something you don’t see much at the chain restaurants in Cache Valley. In my mind, this speaks to how well Angie’s employees are treated. Some of the these mainstays have been with the restaurant for more than 20 years, and Saboor calls them the “go-to team” that sustains the business day to day while other workers are being hired and trained to fill open positions.
“We are very blessed in this regard,” he said.
Angie’s loyalty to employees also extends to customers, which is another thing you’ll rarely see at a chain restaurant. When asked if sharply rising food costs have forced him to raise menu prices, Saboor said yes, in some cases, but Angie’s has been reluctant to touch its “senior breakfast menu” that so many daily regulars on fixed incomes rely upon for an affordable meal.
“You’ve got the financial factor. You have the human factor. You have to take everything into consideration before you up your prices,” he said.
So I hope all of this answers that question posed by the HJ reader. It will sure be interesting to see how the situation in the restaurant business continues to evolve.