From Wellsville to Buffalo, the pandemic has been a historic challenge for the food service industry. Many kitchens closed down last spring and will never re-open. For the restaurants who survived, the reality of the post-Covid labor market threatens to prevent the recovery so many have waited for.
Since mid-2020 the federal government has adopted a monetary policy of ‘flooding’ the economy with cash to prevent a long lasting depression. Stimulus checks, PPP loans, and what seems to be the real culprit: unemployment payments. Workers who lost employment when the economy rapidly retracted due to the “Covid shutdown” have been supported by unemployment insurance payments which included pandemic supplements of up to $400 extra per week. Data shows that the many are not returning to work as the economy restarts.
With these payments scheduled to continue through September, the summer season will be yet another challenge for the food world. Many operations have invested in increased outdoor dining capacity that may not provide any return. “You can have all the seating in the world, but if you don’t have staff to provide service, you can’t fill those chairs,” reports a well known Buffalo area chef.
Special events like banquets, weddings, and fundraisers are the bread and butter of many venues during the warmer weather. “We can’t even find staff to serve our normal daily operations!! Booking a wedding isn’t even an option at this point,” reports one large venue in the Wellsville market.
The answer is the last thing restaurants want to do: Limit hours, seating, and advertising. The famous Black Sheep restaurant in Buffalo is only open Friday and Saturday without servers, dishwashers, and bartenders willing to work. Several Wellsville kitchens are considering limiting hours and seating capacity in order to cope.
Customers, emerging from a long break from normal dining routines, are eager to get back to their favorite places but are finding a whole new service environment. Longer wait times, less personal attention, and that favorite waitress is likely not on the job.
“Its definitely not the same, or the normal experience we all came to expect. You can tell the staff are burnt out and frustrated. The chef is still putting out great food but he’s working 85 hours a week, which just isn’t sustainable. I used to remember being a little envious of his career, but not so much after this nightmare,” one well-known regular explained.
The unintended consequences of this pandemic-driven monetary policy show no signs of improving. In addition to the remaining six months of generous unemployment payments, more money is headed into the economy. The last six months of 2021 will include cash payments for all children. Parents with children age 5 and under will receive $3,600, kids between 6 and 17 years old, will be paid $3,000 maximum per child. Even 18-year-olds and full-time college students 24 and under can bring parents a one-time $500 payment. These payments will be distributed monthly this July through December. Congress is currently considering making these monthly payments permanent.
With no real hope for any change in the marketplace, its going to be a long summer for restaurants, grocery stores, and larger venues. As one local manager pleads, “Customers please be patient!! Those staff members who are still working are under intense pressure and working long hours”.