Top stories of 2021: For Connecticut restaurants, the pandemic struggle continued

·5 min read

The coronavirus pandemic has hit every sector of the economy, but few industries suffered as much as the restaurant business. In 2020, hundreds of Connecticut eateries closed. Even after the rest reopened, many diners still shunned gathering places. All restaurants saw customer numbers and profits plummet.

The arrival of 2021 brought hope that troubled times would end, but that optimism faded as the pandemic persisted. As 2022 begins, the industry is still in turmoil. Some continuing problems were predictable. Infection rate spikes kept diners away. Employees tested positive. Cold weather closed patios that kept many eateries afloat.

Other problems were unanticipated. The supply chain crisis sent costs spiking. The end of enhanced unemployment didn’t bring the employees back. Restaurant staffers reported many cases of customer unkindness.

Ironically, one disappointing element of 2021 was the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, set up to help owners recoup revenue losses. The kitty was so underfunded that two-thirds of applicants nation- and state-wide were rejected, creating an unlevel playing field and quiet resentment among restaurateurs.

The Hartford Courant selected the struggles of the restaurant industry as one of the top 10 stories for 2021. Courant editors selected the top stories of the year based on reader interest and significance.

Smaller capacity, restricted hours

The dramatic expansion of outdoor dining in 2020 and 2021 rescued many restaurants from closure. When cold weather came, those patios and sidewalk tables closed. Many restaurants hibernated through the winter and reopened when warm weather returned.

Those owners still had to pay rent, insurance and utilities, but not food and alcohol bills, paychecks or other fixed costs. Hibernation kept restaurants from “bleeding out,” said Scott Dolch, president of Connecticut Restaurant Association.

Restaurants that stayed open were allowed to stay open until 11 p.m. — up from 10 p.m. — in early February, and to return to 100% capacity in March. But social distancing still had to be enforced and bars had to stay closed.

For many restaurants, it was still a struggle, said Mark Dion of Mark’s Restaurant in Enfield and Mark’s Tavern in East Windsor. “I think saying we can go to 100% is a little deceiving. I don’t believe anyone is going to be at 100%. Some might be able to go to 75%, 80%, but you have to have a big place to do that,” said

Struggling to get supplies

Supply-chain bottlenecks, hiring difficulties and poor inventory at food-processing plants contributed to scarcity and steeply rising prices for food and supplies. Many restaurateurs who depended on regular deliveries found orders cancelled or postponed.

Some restaurants eliminated too-expensive items, like calamari and crab. Some offered big-ticket items like prime cuts of beef and chicken wings at “market price,” which formerly applied mostly to seafood.

“Price varies so much, week to week, sometimes day to day, increase or decrease but mostly increase,” said Patty Bradbury, co-owner of Golden Greek in Killingly.

Some restaurateurs resisted raising prices too much, for fear of angering customers, even if this cut into their profits in an industry that already had a single-digit profit margin.

Not enough workers

When the pandemic began and dining rooms were forced to close, many employees lost their jobs. Federally enhanced unemployment benefits eased their burden. In May, when restrictions were lifted, owners had trouble luring employees back.

“People come in and say, ‘why can’t we sit over there?’” said James Varano of Black-Eyed Sally’s in Hartford. “It’s hard to explain that we have no one to serve you if you sit over there.”

Owners bemoaned enhanced federal unemployment benefits and assumed that when it ended, workers would return. That hope faded when hiring difficulties remained after after federal benefits were curtailed. The labor issues remain, to this day. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Varano said.

Many restaurants still have shorter hours, fewer open days and longer wait times than in the pre-pandemic days. This cuts into customer satisfaction and the bottom line. No restaurateur wants this to be the new normal. But for now, it is.

An incomplete rescue

In May, the American Rescue Plan allocated $28.6 billion nationwide to a Restaurant Revitalization Fund, to help restaurateurs recoup losses. Restaurateurs’ happiness turned sour when it became clear that the $28.6 billion was about one-third of what was needed.

In Connecticut, 3,369 restaurants applied for a total of $790,818,094. A total of 1,303 got funding, totaling $301,164,069. About twice that number, 2,066 restaurants, were left high and dry.

Dolch said restaurateurs were confused. “I’ve been asked, does this mean it’s over with? Does this mean I won’t get it?,” he said.

A bill was introduced in June to add $60 billion to the fund. It has not been voted on yet. Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal is an advocate. “We are on the brink of failing countless restaurants big and small that have survived the past year and just need to finish this marathon,” he said.

Rude customers

In Connecticut, restaurant employees gathered online to discuss their stories of customer maltreatment.

“A man screamed in my face today. ... Before me, he was screaming at a 17-year-old girl working at the register,” Amanda Lee Landry, of Popover Bistro & Bakery in Simsbury, wrote on Facebook. “If you all are wondering why your favorite restaurants are understaffed, that’s why.”

Disgruntled customers were abusing employees as a result of the continuing struggles of the industry. April Melisa of The North House in Avon said “Our industry isn’t just facing staffing shortages. We are dealing with insane price hikes, last-minute unavailabilities, delivery issues. We are all human and deserve common decency and respect.”

A hashtag was created, #bekindtorestaurants, to increase awareness and encourage kindness.

Susan Dunne can be reached at sdunne@courant.com.