One month after Gov. Ned Lamont eliminated nearly all pandemic-related restrictions on businesses, two thirds of Connecticut residents are at least partially vaccinated and COVID cases are lower than ever. Demand for dining out, restaurant owners say, is higher than ever. Warm weather and the beginning of a return to normalcy should mean that Connecticut’s restaurants are having an incredible summer. But restaurant owners are at a breaking point.
Margaret Colangelo, owner of the Po Cafe in Litchfield County, said she’s broken down in tears multiple times talking to customers, fielding their complaints about long wait times and missing menu items.
“It’s crippling,” Colangelo said. “The general public expects things to be back to normal. I want to return to normal too, I really do, but things just aren’t normal yet.”
Colangelo says constant uncertainty about supply chains, from fluctuating prices to the inability to predict when items will be delivered, has made it challenging to provide a consistent product to her customers.
“It’s hard to print a menu,” said Joe Goldberg, co-owner of Lenny & Joe’s Fish Tale, which has locations in Westbrook and Madison.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, menu prices were four percent higher this past May than one year earlier. Wholesale beef prices have risen more than 40 percent since mid-March, and some cuts of steak are more than 70 percent more expensive, according to the Department of Agriculture. New England has been hit particularly hard by the astronomical rise in lobster prices.
“We’re seeing lobster prices at a level we’ve never seen before,” said Dan Meiser, owner of the Oyster Club in Mystic. “It’s currently sitting around $46 per pound, when before the pandemic, it was $29 per pound.”
Now, an Oyster Club lobster roll will set a customer back $30, if it’s even on the menu. Andrew Matika, general manager of the Willimantic Brewing Company, said they’ve had to axe their lobster roll due to pricing, too. His restaurant has replaced it with a shrimp roll, a more cost-effective option that Matika said has been well-received.
Price increases have not been limited to food supplies. Joel Gargano, co-owner of Grano Arso restaurant in Chester, said his glove prices have more than quadrupled, an item he needs now more than ever due to additional sanitation procedures.
“The dramatic price increases on the supply side have made it necessary to adjust our pricing,” Gargano said. “We’re not increasing prices to gouge people, we’re increasing prices to live. We have to sustain our business somehow. People forget that restaurants are businesses, and businesses need to make money.”
Uncertain supply chains have not just driven up prices, they have also made it hard to predict when deliveries will arrive, and when different ingredients will be in stock. Colangelo’s Po Cafe serves a poke bowl with seaweed salad and pickled ginger imported from Japan. The time from order to delivery used to be just a few days, but can now drag on for three weeks or longer.
Meiser, who also chairs the board of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, attributed much of the supply-side challenges to the labor shortages that have been widely reported across industries.
“Everything’s costing more,” Meiser said. “When I talk to suppliers trying to figure out why a box of to go containers costs 40 percent more now than it did a year and a half ago, one of the responses I get is that their costs to get that product onto a truck and sent to you have gone up because they’re going through the exact same thing with their labor force that we are.”
Meiser’s Oyster Club will celebrate its tenth anniversary this year, and before the pandemic, it had always been open seven days a week. Now, though Meiser says demand has never been higher, they are only able to be open five days a week.
“It’s almost July in one of the top tourist towns in New England,” Meiser said. “We would be busy every night of the week, but we physically cannot find the kitchen staff that we’d need to keep the standards and quality our customers expect.”
He said that the wages are “as good as it gets,” and that he’s offering 401Ks with five percent matching, along with full health, dental and vision insurance, but cannot find experienced restaurant workers to hire.
Colangelo said she’s seen other restaurants offering signing bonuses, paid vacations, and benefits she’s “never heard of in this industry,” and can’t imagine how offering things like that could be potentially viable for a small restaurant like hers.
She said she’s particularly struggled to hire bakers, chefs, and people with restaurant experience – she currently has three new employees who have never worked in restaurants before, being trained by someone who started her first restaurant job at the cafe three weeks ago.
“I’ve tried everything,” Colangelo said. “I could probably do twice the amount of business I’m doing now if I had the staff for it, because there’s so much business coming my way, but I have to turn it down. It’s really sad.”