CLEVELAND — The days may still be mild, but make no mistake—winter is coming.
Fifty percent of the restaurant owners surveyed by the Ohio Restaurant Association as part of its latest ORA Business Impact Poll said business conditions are worse now than they were three months ago.
Industry experts are worried things could get worse over the winter.
Mallorca owner Laurie Torres is also thinking about how her staff will make it through. Torres is also president of Cleveland Independents, a group of 80+ locally owned and operated restaurants. She will also soon become a board member of the ORA.
“There's a lot of demand for restaurants right now which is a beautiful thing, makes us happy, but we also feel like we can't serve people the best way that we're used to, because we just don't have enough staff,” said Torres.
Torres said labor shortages continue to plague the industry as workers are being enticed by higher paying jobs at Amazon and other businesses.
Now, there are ever-growing supply chain issues.
95% of owners surveyed by the ORA said they’ve experienced significant supply delays or shortages of key food items in recent months.
“There are so many things that we can't get in. So many things that we could get before that we can get but the price has gone up, the price for meat, the price for seafood, paper products,” said Torres.
The ORA is sounding the alarm about those issues and more, including the looming winter season, which means no outdoor dining and less opportunities to serve COVID-19-conscious diners.
The ORA is urging local leaders to help restaurants in offering outdoor dining for as long as possible this winter by extending expanded outdoor dining allowances, continuing to streamline permitting processes, promoting outdoor dining efforts by operators in their cities, and providing funding for outdoor dining infrastructure as some cities did in 2020.
Fifty-three percent of owners surveyed by the ORA believe they won’t break even in 2021.
“Every day for an operator you can get those additional sales on the outside that can be the difference between breaking even or maybe making a little bit of money that month,” said John Barker, president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association.
Torres and the ORA think there are a couple things that could help the industry stay afloat this winter and into 2022, including lawmakers injecting $60 billion into the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund that was exhausted earlier this year.
The first round of funding earlier this year provided $28.6 billion to eligible restaurants. Only 101,000 out of the 278,000 restaurant operators who applied received funding.
Ohio restaurants received $586.8 million of that money. But still, 6,804 restaurants in Ohio walked away with nothing.
“It made a huge difference for us. It allowed me to maintain my staff and allow me to do advertising and things like that,” said Torres. “It allowed me to put money back into the city that I wasn't able to before. You know, things like advertising, supporting Destination Cleveland dues and things like that. The Restaurant Revitalization Fund doesn't just help the restaurant. It helps all of the ancillary businesses and the city that that restaurant is in through taxation and supporting those other businesses.”
Torres believes another solution for the issues facing the industry is rebranding how people think about service work and making them realize how important independent restaurants are to Northeast Ohio.
“We have to make people understand how cool it is to work in this industry. And that it might be hard work, but that you're invited into people's lives. You joyfully get to be part of people's happy times and their sad times. And that's a beautiful thing. It's a fun industry,” said Torres. “Your independent restaurants are what make your city, that's your personality. People don't say when you come to Cleveland, ‘I'm going to take you to McDonald's.’ How special is that? Or I won’t mention other names. They say, ‘I'm going to take you to Mallorca, I'm going to take you because that's something that creates the personality of our city,’ and without those restaurants surviving, there goes the personality of the city and we all become just pasteurized homogenized looking the same. So push your congressmen to please support the restaurants.”
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