Local restaurant owners reflect on how COVID is leaving lasting changes to the hospitality industry

click to enlarge Local restaurant owners reflect on how COVID is leaving lasting changes to the hospitality industry
Young Kwak photo
Eat Good Group's Adam Hegsted hopes COVID makes restaurants more purposeful.

Just days before what was expected to be an announcement that Spokane County would be rolled back to Phase 2 restrictions due to a recent spike in coronavirus cases — instead, the county is staying in Phase 3 for at least the next two weeks — local restaurant owners were feeling, yet again, thrown into a state of limbo.

News of the potential rollback came as many were beginning to ramp up staffing to meet an increase in demand for in-person dining, while also dealing with an unprecedented dearth of applicants.

Several owners reflected, in their own words, on the trials and triumphs of the past 13 months, ranging from permanent changes the pandemic has brought to what's keeping them going. Their responses were edited for length and clarity.

This year was rough and showed how fragile our hospitality industry is. There were many who did not endure this, and many who were close to failing and still are struggling. I think this was the wake-up call the industry needed. We have for too long lived on too-slim margins, which leaves us little to no room for times like these. We need to cut the fat where we can, get lean in our operations and be a little quicker on things that end up costing us money.

We also have been looking at ways to ensure our staff is taken care of. Whether or not the pandemic and our current political climate have forced some issues to light, we want to look at everything we're doing and try to do it in a more purposeful light. Asking things like: Are we treating our staff properly? Are we listening to our guests? Is our business sustainable the way it's running? Are we creating better lives for ourselves and our staff?

From the beginning, the pandemic has been very difficult for us and other local small businesses. We have all had to pivot, and then pivot again and again. Initially at Downriver Grill, we needed to figure out the best way to transition into offering our menu just to-go. Before the pandemic, about 10 percent of our sales were to-go, so it was a big change for us. We focused on serving menu items that would travel well and maintain the best quality and consistency in the process. Some challenges we're currently facing are increased prices from our vendors and difficulty in staffing.

Setting aside all the loss in lives, jobs and businesses, there are a few things that stood out on the restaurant front.

The first is how restaurants and their importance to the community came forth. From local Facebook fundraiser groups like Spokane Quaranteam, the many restaurant-focused grant projects, to just the wonderful caring the community showed through purchasing to-go food, tipping very generously and buying $1,000 gift cards. There was so much pouring out of love for us it was humbling. I feel like this brought us and our guests closer together and those relationships will last a very long time.

A challenge our industry will feel for a long time will be the labor shortage. With so many of our industry's employees losing their jobs multiple times over the year, many just gave up on the instability and moved on to other industries. Now that we're able to seat outside fully and 50 percent inside, we are seeing a huge boom in demand. We just had our second-best-ever week. But we are severely short on staff. While most of our past employees returned, we are reopening in the time of the year where volume is at the highest.

Local restaurant owners reflect on how COVID is leaving lasting changes to the hospitality industry
Young Kwak photo
Mark Starr of David's Pizza is worried COVID-19 made people scared of each other.

One thing that's more far-reaching is the changing of people's views on how they do things. We live in a country that's pretty proud of making things convenient, and COVID made more things convenient. Look at all the delivery services for food as an example. But you can't get restaurant-quality food delivered to your home. When food comes out of the oven, it's made to rest for a few minutes and be served immediately. Serving things in a box is not how the game is played. When you get into your home it's not going to be good.

Another one might be people's attitudes. People have grown scared of other people. I've seen people walking down the street and if they see someone without a mask on, they'll jump out into the street. While the only people going to restaurants are those who want to be around other people, sometimes they ask 'Can you seat us at a table further away?' It's brought up a new dynamic, and I look at it as being harmful.

Staffing issues are also as bad as the pandemic. I don't think people realize how tough it is out there. I can't get people to come back to work. A lot of places aren't open for breakfast or lunch because they can't get staffing, and a couple are not open at all right now because of that.

Our focus since the beginning of COVID-19 has been, and will remain, to achieve a complete return to normalcy as smoothly and quickly as possible. On a darker note, I think our industry will continue to be somewhat crippled due to the constant state of exhausting uncertainty brought on by COVID-19.

Beyond the obvious, you never know when there's going to be a phase change, and you're staffed up to be 50 percent and all of a sudden it might be 25 percent. We've seen some of our more long-time employees who've just decided to change gears, and I think a lot has to do with the underlying stress that people are experiencing. Everybody is on edge. Guests are on edge, which puts employees on edge, and it's not a fun time to be working in the industry.

Certainly we've had more understanding from government agencies than we've ever had in the past, and that has resulted in some sensibly looser restrictions. There have been changes made that should have been anyway, such as the ability to expand patios and seating where it's reasonable to do so. You used to have to jump through a bunch of hoops to do that, and I think that will continue moving forward.

One of the first pivots we made was to start online ordering for every single restaurant. During the first complete shutdown had we not made that change, well, we would have just been sitting ducks. So that was really big for us, and that has translated to better sales to the point where we're at right now. TT's was the pilot, and initially we minimized down to only senior management. We were getting worked hard, which made us realize we needed to make changes, and that we were running the business way too fat, and that we could run it better.

The other thing that's really scary is that every single week we have a threat coming from the governor stating 'We're probably going to push you back,' but we want to bring people on because demand is there. But if we get pushed back to 25 percent, will I have too much staff, and now I can't employ them? It's this really big concern that I have. I really care about everyone on my team, and if all of a sudden we bring these people in because we need help, and then the government turns around and shuts us back down, it's 'Oh crap, what did I do to their lives, and will they come back to work?' We can't really see past our own struggles, so it becomes more of a personal thing.

What we've tried to demonstrate is that we can provide full benefits to all kitchen and front of house staff, and we can watch out for their health and safety as well as anyone. And we can try and make as many customers feel safe here. We have had zero cases of COVID traced to No-Li in over a year, and that took a real diligent effort.

And then you outreach and give until it hurts. I get that question a lot: 'Why do you keep doing that?' It's just what you should do. We're not the only ones; we're one of many in this community.

So what has the pandemic created? A humbling, and understanding we're all here together in some form or shape and some have it much worse. We make craft beer, hard seltzer and crafted canned cocktails, and they're winning awards all over the world, but at the end of the day does that really matter? If that is the stimulus that helps all these things happen, well then that's pretty cool. [Editor's note: No-Li has donated about $300,000 to area nonprofits since the pandemic began.] ♦