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How the pandemic has changed Philly’s restaurants

Restaurant owners and workers say business is returning to pre-pandemic levels, but COVID-19 has left indelible marks on the industry.

Rhonda Saltzman, left, and Mercedes Brooks check up on baked goods at their work space inside the BOK Building in South Philadelphia on Thursday, April 7, 2022. The sisters launched Second Daughter baking co. in 2020 and were recently named James Beard semifinalists for Outstanding Baker.
Rhonda Saltzman, left, and Mercedes Brooks check up on baked goods at their work space inside the BOK Building in South Philadelphia on Thursday, April 7, 2022. The sisters launched Second Daughter baking co. in 2020 and were recently named James Beard semifinalists for Outstanding Baker.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Part one of a two-part series.

In 2020, Erin Thorum and her husband had never hiked a mile in their lives. The restaurant-industry veterans of almost 20 years each were too busy for that. Flash-forward to 2022 and they’re mapping out a celebratory trip for Thorum’s 40th birthday: hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru.

It’s all thanks to the pandemic, she says. “We were forced to start going outside during quarantine. And all of a sudden, we found this hobby that we fell in love with.”

For Thorum, now working at Stickman Brews in Royersford, that discovery symbolizes something larger: She has reordered her priorities.

“Before COVID, I was like, ‘Whatever you say, I will do it. I will live my entire life here at this job. I will let my personal life and my relationships, my health suffer for whatever it is that you need.’” Now, she knows there are times work might demand more of her, but she won’t put her job before her family, her dogs, or her hobbies ever again.

“I’m so thankful for that part of COVID, because it truly did change my life,” Thorum says.

Last month, Philadelphia’s restaurant industry marked two years since the city ground to a halt, kicking off a series of transformations that changed so much, from how menus are designed to how customers interact with staff. The Inquirer asked several industry sources to reflect on those changes. Here are some key takeaways:

Workers reconsidered the status quo.

The service-industry ranks thinned during the pandemic, perhaps by 20% to 30%, estimates Dan Tsao, who owns EMei in Chinatown and General Tsao’s House in Center City. He saw it at home: Three of the 10-person kitchen staff at EMei left the industry altogether since 2020.

“We tried to convince them to stay,” he says, but the risk was too great. “They tell us they have kids at home, their wives worried.”

But it wasn’t just COVID-19, Tsao says. He talked to a sous chef who quit for work at a warehouse — someone Tsao thought had potential to become an executive chef one day. The sous said he couldn’t get home before 11 p.m.; he missed weekends and holidays with his family.

“It’s the pandemic that made him think about these factors,” Tsao says.

The customer isn’t always right.

Food service was always physically taxing, but the pandemic made it life-risking. That fact overthrew a long-held practice of putting customer satisfaction above all.

For some employers, like Jen Choi of Crunchik’n in Center City and Ocean City, it was a no-brainer. “When the pandemic first happened, I made a conscious decision to say ... we’re going to put the safety of our staff first.” If a customer gets upset, Choi tells staff to get her. “It is not your job to be yelled at,” she says.

She solicited worker feedback, too. It wasn’t until after all staff was fully vaccinated that dine-in service resumed in 2021. And when workers felt uncomfortable during the omicron surge, they switched back to takeout-only until case rates dropped.

Crunchik’n — which also offers competitive pay, paid time off, and sick leave — hasn’t struggled to maintain staff, even in Ocean City, where labor shortages forced boardwalk operators and lifeguard stands to adjust hours last summer. Choi knows other owners who prioritized workers had similar experiences with staffing.

“We made sure that our staff were taken care of no matter what. That builds a sense of trust, builds loyalty,” she says.

Workers are advocating for themselves.

Even as wages rise and benefits become more prevalent, some food-service employees are taking matters into their own hands. They’re starting to organize, asking for more than raises or paid time off: They also want a louder voice in how businesses operate.

Bagel-monger Collin Zastempowski says that workers at Korshak Bagels, Old City Coffee, and Good Karma Cafe have filed paperwork to form Local 80, a union for food-service workers. It will fall under the auspices of Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

“What we intend to do at Workers United is organize along industry lines,” Zastempowski says. The union plans to approach restaurant workers, delivery drivers, “all the way down the supply chain. We don’t really want to see a separation because ... at any kind of restaurant or fast-food service or bagel shop, a lot of the experience is the same.”

Enthusiasm is spreading after high-profile union victories like those at Starbucks and Amazon. Zastempowski has been approached online and in-person by workers curious about forming unions at their workplaces. They hope it’s a turning point for labor.

“If you actually want to change the restaurant industry, it’s not going to be from a business owner,” Zastempowksi says. “It’s the workers who will be raising the standards in the industry. And we’re committed to that.”

Higher prices are often still too low.

Supply-chain crunches, inflation, labor shortages, wage increases — so many factors drove up costs in the last two years that restaurants, most of which were reluctant to raise prices pre-pandemic, couldn’t avoid it any longer. Even so, owners like Mike Strauss of Mike’s BBQ are keeping prices lower than they probably should.

“I feel like there’s only so much you can charge,” says Strauss, who’s raised prices three times since 2020. People still pay — Mike’s frequently sells out — but Strauss has noticed some items declined in popularity. He now sells 25% less ribs after two price hikes since 2020.

“From my end, I’m probably still making the same off the rib, but you lose all those other sales, like [customers] buying some collard greens and mac and cheese.”

Strauss also acknowledges that higher prices leave some customers out. “I want to be barbecue for everybody,” he says. “Every time you raise a price, you’re sensitive to that.”

Despite everything, the industry is thriving.

Even as the pandemic took a heavy toll on bottom lines — putting many places out of business entirely — it spawned creativity and collaborations in droves. The burgeoning crop of new restaurants opening this spring signals there are still plenty of entrepreneurs willing to gamble on Philly’s appetite.

And many businesses bloomed during this time. Take Second Daughter Baking Co., which launched as an in-home operation in November 2020. This year, sisters Rhonda Saltzman and Mercedes Brooks were James Beard semifinalists for Outstanding Baker.

“I never thought in a million years,” says Saltzman, who was working 60 hours a week as a line cook before the pandemic forced her to take time off. “But that’s not why we do it. ... For us, it’s about the work.”

Saltzman and Brooks bake at the Bok every day; Saltzman still has a side job. If the schedule is running them ragged, the sisters don’t show it. They’re living out their dream.

The pandemic created ”this kind of perfect storm for businesses starting,” Saltzman says. As the economy and daily life recover, people are ordering larger cakes for bigger celebrations. “They want to experience these life moments and milestones with more people,” she says. “It’s only right that there are a lot of restaurants and bakeries opening up.”