The restaurant industry is hurting


Anette Hernandez Diaz, Staff Writer

As the world is overcoming COVID-19, many countries are now opening their shops, restaurants and other entertainment venues to revive their economy.

Every restaurant was scrambling to figure out how to handle the pandemic, while allowing a handful of customers in at a time, spaced six feet apart. Restaurants are now coming up with new and innovative ways of giving their customers a unique dining experience, while making sure that all guidelines of social distancing are maintained.

Some restaurants have included employees wearing face shields while customers wear their masks, small glass cabins for outdoor dining, and plexiglass partitions on the tables. As well as employees wearing gloves at all times, plastic partitions, the offering hand sanitizers, and ordering from six feet apart.

After reopening restaurants and some other businesses, California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the temporary closure of bars, indoor dining, movie theaters, and museums on July 13. All this comes at a time of year when restaurants and bars can ordinarily count on brisk business, especially in summer tourist destinations. For restaurants planning to reopen or those that must abruptly close again after reopening, the inability to forecast staffing and food needs can damage already thin profit margins. Those steaks they ordered when they thought they’d need them may languish in the freezer after the restaurant has to close and change its course. Some restaurants have pivoted to takeout and delivery, but for many, that’s not a strategy that can sustain them. Plus, it’s frustrating for the wait and bar staff who count on summer tips and may soon lose the federal unemployment benefits provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.  This was all in July, and now here it is January.

A week before the California order rolling back reopenings in November, San Diego County shut down indoor dining. For Chris Cox, chief operating officer of OMG Hospitality Group, that means four of the six restaurants in his company’s restaurant portfolio are operating with outdoor dining only.

“Some of our locations have larger patios than other ones,” Cox said. “But we were able to take over the parking lot in one location.”

A fifth restaurant only had an indoor dining room, but they’re working to open the rooftop for outdoor dining. Keeping up with ever-changing local and state requirements and explaining them to customers has been challenging. For instance, there was a time when area restaurants could legally serve alcohol but only if customers also ordered food. At first, customers were happy to comply. Then Governor Newsome issued a regional stay-at-home order which hurt the industry again.

“People have been cooped up for a very long time, so there was definitely a sense of excitement and the vast majority of people were so excited they would follow whatever rules you put in place,” Cox said. “As the restrictions lessened, people got a little bit more comfortable and didn’t want to follow the rules as much anymore.”

Despite loans, there’s still a rocky road. The business received some loans, but Cox said restaurants are still going to struggle.

“With the cost of barricades we have between tables, sanitizing stations, new chemicals, gloves, and then starting and stopping with the amount of product we have to order … [it’s a challenge],” he said. “We were expecting a much better New Year’s Eve, but weren’t able to reach capacity like we normally would.”

The lack of college students and holiday tourists dealt another blow to area restaurants. Dealing with the uncertainty of the past several months has been tough on management and staff.

“The whiplash effect is definitely the most challenging aspect of operations right now and trying to keep morale up when people are getting yo-yoed around,” Cox said.