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.

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