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Courtesy of Haven Hot Chicken

Questions Abound as Area Restaurants Head into the Holidays

For restaurants, caterers and events venues, the curveballs have kept on coming, in the form of supply chain bottlenecks, labor shortages, and renewed concerns about COVID-19.  

“It’s been challenging, that’s for sure, without a doubt,” said Greg Gardner, general manager of J.Timothy’s Taverne in Plainville. 

But where challenges arise, there’s also room for innovation — and restaurant owners say they are looking ahead, preparing special offerings for the holidays and into the New Year, and expanding on some of the quick pivots they were forced to make last year.  

Expanded takeout in particular seems to be sticking around. Angelo Marini, owner of Sal e Pepe, an Italian restaurant in Newton, said that takeout has balanced out the slight decrease in in-person dining. Joel Gargano, owner of Grano Arso in Chester, said the restaurant plans to continue offering an expanded takeout menu despite returning to  pre-pandemic levels of in-person dining.  

Gardner said J. Timothy’s is benefiting from their expanded gift shop. Now, he said, people can pick up craft beer from local breweries and take it to-go, something they have never been able to do before. 

A lot of uncertainty, however, remains — everything from seemingly random shortages of goods, to the ability to find workers, to the future course of COVID-19 and how the federal government will respond. 

Marini said that he feels confident that, after having gotten through so much in the last year, the restaurant will come through even if the COVID-19 situation gets worse. 

“It doesn’t keep me up at night,” he said. 

“Like having a car with a bad carburetor” 

Although restaurant owners say that the new COVID-19 variant and increased positivity rates in the state have not hurt business, so far at least, but that they are seeing cancellations of larger gatherings, particularly corporate events. 

Shiran Nicholson, owner of The Knowlton, an event venue in Bridgeport, said that events venues like his were particularly sensitive to any mention of a new COVID variant. As a result, he said, business has been in flux, with periods of both no bookings and then big rushes as people become more confident.  

“It’s like having a car with a bad carburetor, it’ll run for a little bit and then it’ll stall,” he said. 

Gardner said that people wanted to come out and eat at the restaurant in person. But Gardner said that change for the better had run  up against another difficulty — staffing shortages. 

“People want to be normal and they want to come out, and that combination, with the lack of help that we have, particularly in the kitchen, is not a good combination,” he said. 

Gardner said the restaurant has had to turn down some larger banquet events simply because they were shorthanded. He said they have also shortened their hours.  

Scott Rohrig, owner of Lasse’s Restaurant in Milford, said he was paying workers $2 to $3 an hour more than before. Gargano said that despite paying 30 percent higher than normal wages before the pandemic, labor costs have still gone up.  

“Now, hiring new cooks we have to consider that they might have been paid more somewhere else,” he said.  

Jason Sobocinski, a co-founder of Haven Hot Chicken in New Haven, said that the restaurant reached a tipping point with labor about two months ago. When that happened, he said, he asked his staff to reach out to people they knew and who they felt would make good co-workers. He said the tactic worked.

“I think a big part of the labor shortage just comes down to making sure you’re paying people what they’re worth,” he said. 

Rising costs

Besides the price of labor, the industry is  also weathering supply chain shortages, which, according to restaurant owners, seem to have no rhyme or reason. 

“It’s different things all the time, it’s calamari one week, it’s chicken the next week, it’s a  lack of red meat,” said Gardner. 

Marini said the cost of certain products have also gone up, things like meat and to-go containers. 

Lindy Merrill, the dining room manager at Lenny and Joe’s in Westbrook, said the price of seafood has risen astronomically, which has in turn forced some price increases at the restaurant. 

“Lobster has gone through the roof, as well as oysters, whole clams,” she said. “We have had to raise prices and as soon as they go down, we will put them down.”

Gargano said Grano Arso also had to raise prices on their menus just to keep up with the rising cost of supplies and labor. 

In terms of business, Merrill said, the restaurant is doing well — she said they have a big following of locals, plus a large facility where people can easily spread out. People getting vaccinated, she said, was also a big help. 

Haven Hot Chicken, said Sobocinski, was in an unusual position — the restaurant opened in October of 2020, and has never functioned outside of the pandemic. He said he’s never seen some of his workers without a mask on. As a result, he said, the restaurant only serves take-out, and has done well throughout the pandemic. 

Yet despite the success of Haven Hot Chicken’s pandemic-friendly business model, Sobocinski said he is considering a future expansion from just take-out to dine-in.

“I still believe that people want to go out and sit down in a restaurant setting,” he said. 

Squeezing by

Restaurant owners who spoke with CT Examiner also expressed a variety of opinions about the potential need for additional federal funding, should the pandemic worsen once again. 

Gargano and Rohrig said they felt that the federal funding they received was enough. Rohrig said he felt the government might have given too much. 

“I just think the government went overboard with the money they did give everybody, and it’s up to businesses to tighten our belts and do what we can,” said Rohrig. 

Gargano said that the Paycheck Protection Program funds were very helpful at the beginning of the pandemic, along with locals who kept buying gift cards and ordering takeout throughout the pandemic.  

“We just had a really good supportive community around us,” he said. 

Gardner, however, said that more pandemic funding was necessary,

“We definitely need more,” he said. “We can probably squeeze by, but squeezing by compared to what we were before this whole thing happened is night and day.” 

In September, Gov. Ned Lamont proposed a “vaccine passport” — a digital QR code that individuals could show to provide proof of their vaccination. Unlike in New York City, where proof of vaccination is mandatory to enter certain venues, Connecticut would leave it up to the venues whether or not to require patrons to be vaccinated.  

But restaurant owners said that requiring diners to show a vaccine passport might put them in a difficult position.

“I don’t want to be the guy policing it. It’s not what I signed on for,” said Gardner.

“People get very irate when you try to limit anything,” said  Marini. 

Nicholson, however, said the passport could provide some clear guidelines for people at events — those vaccinated would be able to show proof of vaccination, and those unvaccinated would still be able to attend events as long as they showed a negative PCR test and wore masks. 

“I think it would make guests and hosts more comfortable,” said Nicholson. 

“A multi-year recovery, for sure.” 

Gargano said he doesn’t anticipate another shutdown because of COVID. He said he believed people have learned to act responsibly, and that those who are uncomfortable will simply choose to stay home. 

But Gargano said he understands that a complete economic recovery from the pandemic will take time. Gargano said that he is already considering outdoor dining again next year, pending zoning approval. 

“The recovery of this is not a one-year recovery, it’s a multi-year recovery for sure,” he said. 

In the meantime, restaurants are forging ahead with plans for the holidays, and beyond.  

Rohrig said Lasse’s will be offering what they call “Family Styles” for Christmas — large, family size trays of entrees like lasagna, Swedish meatballs and roast beef. 

Gargano said Grano Arso will have a family-style meal with six courses available on the 20th of December, in addition to the traditional Italian meal of seven fishes for Christmas Eve. The restaurant is also planning  a special meal for New Year’s Eve.

Nicholson said he’s planning a grand opening event for The Knowlton in the spring. 

Haven Hot Chicken is offering packages of gift cards for the holidays that can be bought at a discount, but the plastic cards haven’t arrived yet, thanks to supply chain shortages. 

The solution? Digital gift cards. Sobocinski said they work fairly well. 

“When things like the pandemic are kicking up, it’s nice to have something that’s comforting and fun and spicy to challenge you,” said  Sobocinski. “Sometimes, you just need that.”

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