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Sonoma County restaurants still struggling in 2021


Martin said it was painful to see all of the effort and hard work the couple put into the restaurant over the past two decades fading away.

“It’s really sad, to be honest, and it’s been hard to stay motivated, but we force ourselves to keep going. We’ve worked harder than ever in the past two years. It would be easy to quit, but I can ‘can’t afford that,’ he said.

If there’s a silver lining, Lucas said, it’s that the couple have come full circle, leading a lean operation together and trying to look to a brighter future. “This little restaurant that started with two of us has come full circle. I love this place. It’s our heart and our soul,” he said.

The $ 22 Turkey Sandwich

Chef Chris Ball of the Seafood and Eat restaurant in Windsor and Down To Earth Cafe in Cotati has had to increase the prices of his menus to keep up with the rising cost of produce.

He knows customers hate it.

“We’re incredibly busy and we can’t break even,” Ball said of his restaurant Cotati. “I can’t charge enough because any increase I make is only half enough, but when I increased the prices on my menu people went crazy.”

Ball has always prided itself on using ingredients sourced from local farms and ranches, paying good wages and doing as much as possible from scratch, like the pastrami which takes nearly a month to heal, his au pesto or whiskey sauce for his donuts. According to Ball, basic ingredients from factory farms, pre-made sauces and processed ingredients are up to 40% cheaper.

Cash strapped, restaurants are already turning to prefabricated products that solve their labor issues and cost a lot less.

“The sad thing is that people probably only notice once that things are different,” he said. “You don’t need talented staff when all they have to do is show up and put it in a bag.”

“Restaurant owners lower their products to stay profitable, and it’s a smart business time. I could cut prices, and I would lose a few people, but the rest would still show up, which doesn’t support anything around us. This is not the model we have to adopt. It is not good at scale. Our entire food chain and distribution chain depends on us, “he said.

Ball said when factoring in the cost of the right ingredients, wages, workers’ compensation, rent, insurance and all other business-related costs, a turkey sandwich should cost him around $ 22. $ to make a profit, but no one would pay it. .

Instead, business is shifting to less labor-intensive restaurants.

“If you serve pizza, Chinese food, burgers, or Mexican food, you’ve probably done very well during the pandemic. But white tablecloth meals are not coming back,” he said.

This means that talented chefs move into different careers, and high-end waiters extend their sales skills elsewhere.

“There is a massive brain drain from this industry,” he said.

“The older guys who know what they’re doing are gone, and there’s no one behind them who can cook. All of a sudden, you’re a chef at 22 because you can buy everything ready-made. Most of the people I know have been released on bail.

Ball is looking to cash in on the take-out market with a new ghost kitchen, a food business with no physical presence, just cooks preparing food in a commercial kitchen for delivery. He can use his kitchen and staff, use ingredients at lower cost, and outsource delivery to Doordash or Grubhub.

It’s not what he dreams of as a training chef, but at least it will help pay the bills.

A light at the end of the tunnel

With seven restaurants and 475 employees, Mark and Terri Stark faced their own challenges. This includes the opening of their new restaurant, Grossman’s Noshery & Bar, in March 2020, which was not eligible for any of the federal relief programs, and is working to achieve 100% voluntary vaccination for staff.

While each restaurant operates independently, the group benefits from unified management practices that have enabled restaurants to retain employees by prioritizing employee salaries and benefits. Despite being forced to lay off most of their staff in early 2020, Terri Stark said restaurants have kept much of their old team and hired several hundred more during the tight labor market.

The Stark owns Stark’s Steakhouse and Seafood; the Willi’s wine bar; Seafood from Willi; Monti’s; The bird and the bottle; Noshery by Grossman; and Bravas.

With places easily accessible and popular with tourists in Santa Rosa and Healdsburg, Terri Stark said that in April 2021, when diners started to go out in droves, things started to improve in their restaurants.

“It’s been ups and downs, but we’ve seen a few months even better than 2019. We’re holding out,” Stark said.

The management of unvaccinated diners and the emergence of the delta variant were, however, difficult. Stark’s mission is to encourage immunization compliance, including a raffle of 21 $ 1,000 gift cards and a party for immunized staff in early September.

More than 90 percent of the group’s workers are now vaccinated.

“We’re waiting for the inevitable… people will probably need to be vaccinated to get into a restaurant soon. We’re trying to understand our protocol and get on the train as soon as possible,” Stark said. San Francisco recently required restaurants and bars to require guests to show proof of vaccination before entering.

Despite their challenges, Stark has a long-term view.

“I would like people to be optimistic that the current staff situation is not forever. People cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it will come,” she said.


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Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement