Anxious restaurants like omicron, high food costs are taking their toll

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DETROIT (AP) – While restaurants in the US and UK are open without restrictions and often bustling, they are…

DETROIT (AP) – As restaurants in the US and UK are open unrestricted and often bustling, they enter their second winter of the coronavirus pandemic worried about what to come: They are pressed by shortages labor and soaring food prices and the omicron variant is looming.

“I am extremely worried. I never felt like I was out of the woods, ”said Caroline Glover, chef and owner of Restaurant Annette in the Denver suburb of Aurora.

The rapid spread of the omicron is already hitting the industry in Britain and elsewhere, with restaurants, hotels and pubs reporting cancellations at the busiest and most lucrative time of the year. Businesses have urged the UK government to offer relief after officials warned people to think hard about socializing. Scotland and Wales have pledged millions of pounds for business, adding further pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to do the same in England.

“It’s pretty devastating. For private rentals, large tables of eight to 16 people for example, these have almost disappeared. It’s the bread and butter of restaurants at Christmas, ”said Jeff Galvin, co-owner of Galvin Restaurants, a group of five upscale establishments in London.

Many companies have said hundreds of festive business lunch bookings disappeared almost overnight as infections began to skyrocket and Johnson announced tighter restrictions, including mandatory face masks in most of the interior spaces, although the restaurants are open as usual.

Glover, Colorado, is worried about renewed restrictions if infections increase. For now, business is back, with its dining room at full capacity – up from a 50% cap last year – and four greenhouses outside booked well in advance.

Likewise, diners are back and business is booming for Amy Brandwein, who owns the Italian restaurant Centrolina and a small cafe, Piccolina, in Washington. After her restaurants survived the closures with take out and grocery deals, “I can safely say that we are back to 2019 levels,” she said.

But recruitment remains a challenge. In a recent survey of 3,000 American restaurateurs, 77% said they did not have enough workers to meet demand, according to the National Restaurant Association, an industry trade group.

Many restaurant workers have started new careers or returned to school. Jada Sartor of Grand Rapids, Mich., Has seen her salary drop from $ 10 to $ 16 an hour this year as restaurants become increasingly desperate for workers, but she recently quit her job as a waitress because of she couldn’t find affordable daycare.

“The cost of living is so high that you can’t afford to really live,” she said.

Kristin Jonna, owner of Vinology restaurant and wine bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said she had raised salaries by nearly 40% to attract and retain her staff of 35 people. It was a change that had to happen in the service sector, she said. But it cannot raise menu prices enough to compensate.

“Everyone knows beef is more expensive, but high-end, highly skilled labor costs too,” Jonna said. “This is the most delicate part of our business right now. “

Jonna said the restaurant is buzzing despite the high number of COVID-19 cases in Michigan. It has fewer major events scheduled, but the customers who come spend more.

U.S. restaurant and bar sales reached about $ 73.7 billion in November, up 37% from the same month last year, according to preliminary data from the US Census Bureau. But that was in part due to higher menu prices as restaurants try to account for inflation.

Sara Lund, owner of Bodega and The Rest, a bar and restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah, said the cost of her ingredients has risen 15 to 40 percent this year.

“Margins on food will never be astronomical, even in good times,” she said. “But pay 40% more for protein?” I cannot pass this on to the client.

Diners know restaurants are struggling, and many say they’ve started dining out again to help out their favorite local spots. Liz Cooper of Needham, Massachusetts, said she was comfortable dining inside with her family of five, all of whom are vaccinated except for her 4-year-old daughter.

“If you love a restaurant and a small business, you should go there and support them,” Cooper said. “They might have to shut down, and then you’ll be heartbroken that you can’t get your favorite chicken parm or cannoli.”

Steve Geffen, who owns four Chicago-area restaurants including Once Upon a Grill, said he has pulled 30% of the tables in his restaurants to make sure patrons feel comfortable eating there. inside. So far, it works.

“They don’t mind waiting any longer knowing that they aren’t sitting on top of everyone,” he said.

But Jeanne Busch in Forest Park, Illinois, sticks to the occasional takeout.

“I’m definitely not comfortable without a mask inside in a crowd,” Busch said. “As we head into winter and omicron continues to rampage, we mostly expect to eat at home.”

In Britain, omicron has already devastated restaurants and pubs. Patrick Dardis, who runs Young’s channel of some 220 pubs, said he hoped authorities would come up with a financial aid plan soon. About 30% of the chain’s reservations were canceled last week.

“There are thousands of businesses – not just pubs – that could collapse in January if the current situation is not paired with proper financial support,” he said.

UKHospitality, an industry trade group, has called for tax relief, saying concerns over omicron wiped out £ 2 billion ($ 2.6 billion) in sales this month.

Restaurants are also clamoring for government support in the United States, where the Restaurant Revitalization Fund ran dry earlier this year after handing out $ 28.6 billion to 100,000 applicants.

Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public policy at the National Restaurant Association, said the industry needed at least $ 40 billion to fund the 200,000 applicants who did not receive grants. So far, Congress has taken no action.

It’s harder for restaurants to explain what’s going on now that their dining rooms are full and they’re unlocked, Kennedy said.

“They think we’re completely blown away and crushed it, but the answer is we’re barely doing it,” he said.

Lindsay Mescher, who opened the Greenhouse Cafe in Lebanon, Ohio, in 2019, is frustrated that she never received a promised government grant. She was approved in May, but the demand was so high that funds ran out before she received any money.

It has taken out loans to keep its staff of eight employees while offering only take-out food for the first 16 months of the pandemic. The cafe reopened to diners this year and has had a busy summer and fall, but Mescher is still struggling. She paid $ 165.77 for a case of 400 take-out salad bowls, for example; now they cost $ 246.75.

“The funds would have guaranteed our survival,” Mescher said. “It is extremely unfair that some restaurants have been relieved and others have not. “

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Anderson reported from New York and Hui from London.

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