Fifteen months after America locked down, the occupancy restrictions are ebbing and a sense of rosy optimism is filling restaurants.
Normal, or what passes for normal, is on the way. Restaurants are booking up, filling not only previously barren indoor dining rooms but also the outdoor seating areas; some restaurants will actually yield a gain in overall tables by summer. There’s also a restaurant boom in the making, with The Inquirer counting about five dozen new restaurants in varying stages of readiness, more than enough to replace the crop that closed over the pandemic.
But in the short term, during the journey to normalcy, at least two issues are vexing the industry, whose pandemic losses totaled in hundreds of billions of dollars. One, says the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, is the need for additional government relief from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, whose portal just closed after fielding 362,000 applications for $75 billion in funding. Many restaurants are still in debt; landlords who may have deferred rent payments now have their hands out again.
If conversations with dozens of Philadelphia-area restaurateurs are any indication, labor likely is the chief impediment to the industry’s speedy recovery. The U.S. Labor Department recently said about 1.7 million fewer jobs are filled than before the pandemic. “We’ve never had to look for staff like this,” said Michael Franco, a longtime hospitality professional and consultant in Philadelphia. He recently helped to organize a job fair that drew more than two dozen employers. About 50 people showed up, which Franco deemed a win.
Every restaurant seems to be short on staff, particularly servers, to work all of those additional tables and barstools. Fed up with safety issues and their pay, millions of workers left the business entirely in 2020, taking jobs in other fields, often for similar money with more civil hours. Others collected unemployment and stimulus money. Workers and former workers called out long-standing industry practices, both in compensation and working conditions.
Of 202 respondents to The Inquirer’s recent survey of workers currently and formerly in the industry, nearly 80% identified benefits — including health insurance and paid time off — as a very important factor in making food industry jobs more attractive. The respondents also identified higher hourly wages, positive workplace culture, and regular schedules as overwhelmingly desirable qualities in industry jobs. (Not important? Signing bonuses, according to 60% of respondents.)
Here is what “normal” is looking like, at least in the short term.
Walk-in dining is rarer than before the pandemic. Restaurants seem to be insisting on reservations more as they shrink their hours and days of service to solve labor woes.
More restaurants are calling for prepayment. Vernick Wine, for example, requires prepayment of its $135-a-head six-course tasting dinners.
Service charges are being tacked on. Laser Wolf, for example, adds a 20% line item.
The plastic dividers that separated tables are coming down. “We will put them in storage and hope not to use them,” said Jon Myerow, an owner of Tria Cafe and Bar Poulet in Center City.
Sanitation standards have been heightened, likely permanently, “out of habit,” said Franco.
Takeout by prepayment will remain commonplace, said Kurt Evans, who opened Down North, a North Philadelphia pizzeria, during the pandemic. The public will travel to get food, he said, pointing out that he sees customers from New York and Baltimore as well as his neighborhood, the rest of the city, and the suburbs. “It’s a humbling experience,” Evans said.
Menu prices may rise to accommodate not only higher wages and benefits but to cover fluctuating food prices as the supply chain settles. “Wing prices are all over,” Evans said.
Drinks to go, approved in Pennsylvania during the pandemic, is moving closer to permanence.
Outdoor dining will remain. The streeteries that now dot Center City, for example, are allowed to remain in place for all of 2021. The propane heaters are nestled in storage units and will be brought out in October for another season.