Flag restaurants still fighting way back after pandemic

Arizona Daily Sun, July 6, 2021

Written by Gail G. Collins

In the course of more than a year spent flattening the curve, the pandemic delivered a flattening blow to small business, too.

The bounce back of the restaurant industry is marked with concerns, but also, optimism. Issues with staffing, supply chains, inflation, wage increases and countless other obstacles plague owners, but loyal support has strengthened the bonds of community.

The biggest trial has been staffing. For all the good intentions, supplemental checks delayed a return to the demanding occupation of preparing and serving food. Altitudes Bar and Grill dropped from 29 employees to 14 and owner-chef Tony Cosentino of Josephine’s Modern American Bistro called the task, “A nightmare of epic proportion.”

And, for many, it still feels next to impossible.

“We’re still feeling the aftermath of the pandemic . . . the odds are still stacked against us,” Cedar House Coffee Shop owner Wendy Kuek, owner of Cedar House Coffee Shop said while listing the challenges.

Many competent workers left the industry during the course of pandemic. Now, restaurant owners are left facing a competition for capable people, training of new staff, retention and scheduled rise in the minimum wage.

John Conley, owner of Salsa Brava and Fat Olives with 33 years in business, explained the labor issue and the challenges it presents.

“As an operator, I’m proactive, so planning doesn’t happen on a shift or daily basis, but on the week, month and quarter,” Conley said.

Managing expectations in a pandemic-stricken industry

Beyond that is managing the public’s expectations while understaffed.  People are thrilled to be out again, meeting up and sharing life, so shops are busy. Days and hours of operation have been reduced as well as menus, and getting up to speed will take time.

“I’m not sure how to help people understand the magnitude of our situation,” Altitudes owner Lynda Fleischer said.

Fleischer added that streamlining has been key and food offerings were halved, concentrating on serving what they do best in a quality manner.

Cedar House trimmed the specialties and focused on artisanal bakes, providing the same quality, attention and care in their coffees. The shop is a reunion of regulars discusses online school or remote working, and mothers introducing babies born during pandemic.

Customers returned in full force to Colt Grill in Cottonwood and Prescott Valley. Before that, like others, owner Brenda Clouston strategized, and then, did not miss a beat falling back on a strong take-out business with “homey hospitality,” curbside pick-up and other innovative services. Continuing to advertise in print, radio and social media maintained ties.

“We showed up, worked very hard and smiled through it,” she said.

Growth through struggle

Despite uncertainty, businesses opened and grew during the pandemic. Brandy’s expanded to a second location and rebranded in 2019, so owner Kelsey Drayton worried initially about shutdown effects.

“We’re beating every expectation,” he said, “and will have a bigger staff than pre-COVID.”

To keep service going, a patio was added, and that will remain, but now they need wait staff.

Nina Fitchett serves a cold one to a customer on the patio at Flagstaff Brewing Company.

Rachel Gibbons, Arizona Daily Sun

The silver linings are thin, yet owners are extraordinarily hopeful. Retention for Conley’s teams is four times the industry average with a focus on employees first, but rebuilding is required. He cited the outreach to a new generation of high school workers, who he said will benefit from the discipline and rigor of entry-level jobs and become a positive foundation for a future workforce.

Government money helped bridge the gap for many owners, yet local love provided the lifeline for ongoing service. Multiple restaurateurs described how they are grateful for the loyalty of their guests, and the power of great hospitality. Connections matter. Notes of encouragement to “stay strong,” texts and gift cards brought comfort in the midst of the pandemic, and now, welcoming smiles and hugs offer a rousing return to solidify their business positions again.

Restaurants also embraced one another to sustain their industry. Instead of standing apart as competitors, they stood together as colleagues, sharing information and even kitchen staples as the moment necessitated.

Conley’s advice going forward is to slow down and simplify.

“What we do outside the restaurant matters as much as what we do inside, selling an experience of food and hospitality,” Conley said. “It’s still tacos and beer, but each day is a chance to build genuine relationships with staff and clients.”

The heart of community has been evident throughout these difficult times, and small town support will continue to help these businesses bounce back. They ask for patience as they return to normal staffing and service.

Drayton could not imagine managing a pandemic in a big city. Here, the need was apparent and the response was generous. The courage to rise above challenges came from the faith and support of community and customers, according to Kuek.

As Consentino reminded, “We stick together — Flag strong.” AZDS