Though the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is now firmly behind us, presumably for good, the ripples created by that unprecedented period of social, economic and political upheaval continue to affect how we live, work and recreate.
Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in the hospitality industry — and specifically in restaurants. Many establishments are still struggling to hire and retain employees, keep prices affordable for customers and eke out a profit that allows them to survive another year.
That’s as true in Hampton Roads as it is anywhere, which is especially perilous given the region’s outsized reliance on hospitality and tourism revenue. Recent reporting by Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press food writer Rekaya Gibson put a spotlight on the ongoing hardship those businesses are enduring trying to serve the public — and it is illuminating.
When COVID-19 reached these shores in early 2020, public officials and health experts scrambled to contain the disease through screening and travel restrictions before turning to domestic measures once those proved unsuccessful. In short order, a public health emergency resulted in widespread closures of schools, businesses and public spaces.
It was as though our communities changed overnight as most people who could work from home did so and schools moved online. Other industries, such as restaurants and food service, adapted to the new environment by embracing curbside pick-up and home deliveries for patrons.
While those changes helped many places stay afloat in uncertain times, it also took a tremendous toll on employees. In early 2021, a study by researchers at the University of California-San Francisco found line cooks and those who work in agriculture were at greatest risk of dying from COVID, even more than medical professionals fighting the virus in hospitals and clinics.
As the pandemic eased, restrictions expired and the nation, more or less, returned to normal, restaurants that endured that turbulent period found the landscape had changed dramatically. It was harder to find employees to hire, much less to stay. Food costs soared, erasing profit margins. And customers, pent up for two years, were unpredictable and occasionally confrontational.
To meet the demand for higher wages and in order to ensure their survival, many area restaurants have increased prices or added surcharges and fees to diners’ bills. Gibson reports that those include a 20% gratuity to ensure servers and back-of-house staff are fairly compensated and so-called “swipe fees” of 3.5-5% charged by credit card companies that businesses had previously absorbed into costs.
Naturally, many customers have not received these changes gracefully. They are frustrated by longer wait times, often due to understaffing, and resentful of the higher costs. Some have left, pledging never to return until things change.
But paying fair wages, especially at a time when 1 in 15 food service workers quit every month, isn’t a luxury, but a necessity. Inflation exacts a toll across the economy, not only in food service. And while there is legislation that would boost immigration levels to expand the hiring pool for restaurants and offset the credit card companies’ swipe fees, there’s no telling when — or if — that relief will come.
But those measures should win passage, just as we should be willing to accept changes such as automatic gratuities and slightly higher fees to support local businesses. Sure, we may not be able to dine out as frequently, but there is value in rallying behind these much-loved establishments.
After all, neighborhood restaurants are staples of our communities. We cheer our wins and lament our losses at the local sports bar. We fill booths at the neighborhood joints to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. We take first dates and propose marriage at white-tablecloth fine-dining spots. And we gather with friends, new and old, to share a bite and beer, having been reminded how important shared moments are to our lives.
Restaurants are fighting to stay afloat, doing whatever they can, and they won’t survive without us. We should lend our support, knowing our region would be far poorer without them.