Winter is coming. Will it be another bumpy winter for the local restaurant scene? Can we do anything to help? As I see it, we’re facing not one but three troubling and loosely related problems as Pandemic Winter II draws near:
1) Even with widespread vaccination, we haven’t achieved herd immunity. Covid is still around, the delta variant is scary and a lot of people are still staying away from dining rooms.
2) Restaurant workers — like many other workers across the economy — are fleeing their jobs in a wave so noteworthy that it’s been dubbed “The Great Resignation.” Just about every eatery in town is understaffed and fighting for applicants, and that may be reflected in service, further diminishing the shrinking restaurant economy.
3) And then there’s the ongoing supply chain problem, making it difficult for executive chefs, and all the rest of us too, to find basic supplies and to budget the rising costs of the items that we can get.
This is an alarming trifecta, and perhaps because it is so scary, people in the business seem reluctant to talk about it. A lot of my usual sources are either hanging on to denial and hope or wary about publicizing their concerns for fear of making things worse; and I can’t say that I blame them.
So, what’s going on in the restaurant scene? As winter nears, many local restaurants are preparing alternatives to indoor dining. The Irish Rover recently put its high-power heaters back on its spacious patio. Porcini has enclosed its patio, fashioning a protected, heatable outdoor space. And I’m told that Texas Roadhouse, along with many others, are reconstructing pickup areas to provide more room for takeout orders and delivery drivers.
Some are also changing hours to meet changing demands.
“We are actually about to switch to a breakfast and lunch menu, with 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. just to counteract the low traffic of dinner diners due to cold weather,” said Devon Rosenblatt, executive chef and general manager at The Fuelery Restaurant and Cafe in Clifton. “We’re also bringing in alcohol to widen our reach, as that area is heavily laden with alcohol-enjoying diners, so we’d like them to be able to enjoy a glass of wine or mimosa with breakfast or lunch, and recognize we lose some diners not having those offerings.”
Recognizing that many diners are staying home, Rosenblatt added, “We have also partnered with local delivery company Foodching, and a company called Zuppler through which we can do DoorDash deliveries.”
Meanwhile, on the server side, many of those who haven’t quit, simmer in a stew of frustration or rage or maybe a little of both.
“It looks awful to me,” lamented Alex Sanchez-Nouaim, a server and bartender at Rumors in Middletown. “We had to close our restaurant on Sundays due to no staff to work… Sundays being by far my most profitable day of the week. It is terrible! If we do get people in to work they go right back out just as fast. More so in the kitchen. My job has always done very well as far as business goes. This is almost devastating.”
Another local server who preferred not to be named, but was eager to spill their thoughts, added this sad report about server life: “It’s a nightmare almost every day. Everyone is doing three people’s jobs, but no one is making any more money, we’re making less, being faulted for the lack of everything, and matter of fact, we’re getting treated worse by customers than ever before. One five hour shift is completely exhausting. We’re all doing the best we can, but we are running on fumes at this point.
“Customers think because the doors are open and there’s no capacity restrictions that the restaurants are operating as normal and that’s what they expect. Behind the scenes, what they don’t see, is our struggle every day. We hide it well most times. The ones who have stayed in this industry are experienced in dealing with chaos. It used to be once a week or so, when the weekend hit and we got slammed for a couple hours that things were chaotic, now it’s every day, every shift, you never know what you’re walking into when you clock in.
“My job used to be rewarding. It felt good to make people happy. I got paid to make people smile. What a job! Now it’s “what a job….” Our managers are stressed, overworked, beaten up. They can’t be the leadership we need anymore. On top of staff shortage, supply shortage, now we have close to no leadership so we’re falling apart at the seams. Some days I wear my mask because I can’t smile anymore. What do I have to smile about? There’s some quotes for you about the nightmare we face every shift. There’s the reality for you.”
Lew Fox, a server for 10 years before giving up the business, offered similar thoughts. “I thought the issue wasn’t a server shortage, but a good job shortage,” she said. “I’d say it’s less of a wage thing than being expected to do things outside your job description, being treated as expendable, being expected to treat your serving tables job like it is your No. 1 reason for living, even if you have a family at home and/or goals for yourself in your life that maybe has a higher purpose than customer service.”
Looking in from the owner-chef standpoint, Rosenblatt at The Fuelery ruminated on the view from the kitchen.
“We are actually currently pivoting the business hours of operation and design specifically to tackle all of the issues,” he said. “We have been trying to hire for months for kitchen help, only to find under-qualified individuals, or people who are qualified but won’t show up for interviews.
“In the last few months we’ve spent hundreds of dollars on ads, and 90% of applicants won’t even show up to their first interview. A few of them, I’ve verbatim said, ‘If you show up, you’re hired,’ and the day comes and they don’t show up.”
So what can we do, as people who love our local restaurants and want to see them thrive? For starters, support your favorite eateries and try new ones. Mask up and go in, especially if you’re vaccinated; or if you’re wary, go over to takeout or curbside pickup, or even delivery, but remember that delivery adds costs on the restaurant side. One source suggested that we buy restaurant gift cards as stocking stuffers, and I think that’s a great idea.
And when you go in, be kind. “Just remember, it’s only me in the kitchen,” Chef Rosenblatt said. “Generally my food always gets out quick unless every seat is full, but if we’re really busy it may take a few more minutes than it should. I always tell my team, the diner will for the most part understand if it takes longer, so long as it’s hot, correct, and delicious. But at the same time, I always try to educate the guest as well, let them know we’re a small team, and if I know there’ll be a wait time, give them a heads up so they’ll be patient.”
Be patient. Be kind. And don’t stop eating out or ordering in, this winter more than ever.
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