Restaurants around the world have been feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic for more than 21 months.
But that’s not stopping two western Massachusetts restaurateurs who have faith in the market and are growing their businesses.
Federico Mendiola is bullish on the restaurant industry. In early 2020, he already had three locations for his Frontera Grill – Fresh Mex chain open in Chicopee, Springfield and Manchester, Connecticut. All have endured the challenges of the pandemic, and in November he opened a fourth restaurant called Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant, featuring the same remarkable cuisine that made his other restaurants popular.
“A lot of other restorers might not trust me to do what I did. I’ve been working on it for two years now,” Mendiola explained. and gaining support from the local community My plan is to continue to create more dining opportunities for diners, and we have the experience to do so.
The restaurateur believes he has the best of both worlds in Amherst with the large university population, including from nearby Northampton, creating both a clientele for the restaurant as well as a possible workforce in a market where it is difficult to find help today.
“When we first opened our doors in Amherst, the reception was amazing – students, alumni, locals,” he said. “It was wonderful to see.”
Aware of a bigger market for vegan and gluten-free options, Mendiola added them to the menu in Amherst. Garcia’s offers seven gluten-free options and seven vegan options such as “Unreal Nachos” and “Impossible Burrito”.
“People feel safer with these options, and my chef has come up with some vegan creations, which I’ve never had in my life, that taste like chicken or beef,” he said. -he declares.
Like restaurants in the region and the country, staffing and the supply chain have proven to be the biggest challenges that have emerged as COVID swept the world, Mendiola said.
“Although we have a loyal and very local employee base, I did leave several people because they could make more money by staying at home on the government checks they were getting,” a- he declared. “Over the past 14 months, the price of food has really gotten out of control, and it’s been hard to get some items like steaks, which were in short supply.”
“You have to do something to stay alive and pay your bills at the end of the month,” added Mendiola. “But you don’t want to increase the price of the menu, say up to $2.50 on each item, but a few cents here and there so that the extra money to pay those bills comes from somewhere.”
For Ryan Turan, owner of Falls Pizza, a family business in Chicopee, COVID-19 is not on his mind right now.
He’s also taking his own leap of faith with a new restaurant. He was moving in and opening a store in January at 185 Grove St., moving from 103 Main St., where he had operated Falls Pizza since buying the business in 2004.
“I am so excited to purchase our own building where we will now have seating and a liquor license to serve our loyal long-time customers,” Turan said. “It has been a very difficult time for us (preparing for the move). Obtaining materials for the construction, especially coolers which took three months, was difficult. But we made it thanks to my team and my friends in the construction industry who helped us.
Amid the pandemic, Turan said he sat down with his employees and told them their customers had been supporting Falls Pizza for many years and how he felt it was ‘our turn to help the community’ .
“Staffing was a challenge at times and we lost employees,” he said. “But, our doors were always open for our customers thanks to the family working overtime. In fact, our business actually increased during COVID. Falls Pizza has focused on a take-out and delivery operation.
Similar to finding building materials, there were also supply chain issues in terms of certain foods, according to Turan. He saw the price of chicken wings, for example, triple.
Working with several distributors helped him find the fresh produce they needed, he said.
“You can’t always raise your prices, maybe once or twice a year at most,” Turan explained. “And, we had enough revenue from our pizzas to offset the increased price of wings without passing it on to customers.”
According to Steve Clark, COO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, COVID recovery starts and stops are likely impacting the restaurant industry in Massachusetts more than any other. And, while restaurant sales have improved since the early months of the pandemic, business conditions remain far from normal for many Bay State dining establishments, Clark said.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult for restaurants to remain profitable on a cost basis, with almost all operators indicating that their total food costs (as a percentage of sales) are higher than they were before the epidemic. of COVID-19,” he said. “Additionally, a majority of operators report that their total occupancy costs are higher than they were before the outbreak. Wholesale food prices posted the largest 12-month increase since 1980, on top of historically high labor costs, as the labor situation in the restaurant industry is well documented.
Yet the industry continues to try to find a path to profitability. While consumer confidence around indoor dining grew last year, especially before the omicron surge, people still had holiday gatherings. Major corporate holiday events, however, did not return.
“Outdoor dining remains one of the few bright spots to come from the pandemic and the state, municipalities and operators are looking to ensure it becomes permanent. Restaurants are also getting creative by incorporating cocktails into the takeout experience,” Clark said.
He noted that while Congress can find a way to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund established under the U.S. federal bailout law, more than two-thirds of applicants who were not funded during the latest round of grants can return to the field level with their counterparts who have received funding and provided vital relief to operators struggling.
One restaurant that “holds on” is Panjabi Tadka on Main Street in Springfield. Director Malkit Singh offered a stark look at the restaurant industry.
“Our biggest challenge is finding help. Nobody wants to work. I’m lucky and we have a good team staying with us – two servers and four kitchen staff,” Singh said. “But it is difficult to find additional staff to help us. “It was hard to survive.”
While some restaurants have seen a return of indoor diners this summer, Singh said it’s been “very slow right now and nobody wants to eat inside.” And, during the summer, there was no space available at the restaurant to offer outdoor dining.
The restaurant manager noted that at one point, 60% of his business was in the restaurant, with 40% in takeout. Today, these figures are 20% on the spot and 80% on the go.
“We just do enough takeout to survive. On top of that, we have seen a 40% increase in our food costs, some of which has to be passed on to customers,” Singh said.
He spoke to city officials and turned to the federal government for help, but received none to date.
As for the future, Singh’s response was not very encouraging. “Who knows? But I think we’ll be here for a little while,” he said.
Chris Osgood, manager of the Tavern restaurant in Westfield, is a bit more optimistic.
“Last year was exciting for us because we started to see more people feel comfortable coming to a restaurant for a meal,” Osgood said. Still, there were challenges.
“Getting produce was a problem and dealing with high prices on meats like chicken, beef tenderloin, prime rib as well as some seafood. We were seeing extremely high prices for some of these items and we had to balance the menu options requested by our customers by offering them at a reasonable price,” said Osgood, noting that it proved impossible not to increase the price of certain menu items.
Besides the challenge of balancing how many or how few servers to have on any given day when business “started up again”, Osgood noted that they had a “very loyal staff” who remained at the tavern.
With only two months into the new year, Osgood is still holding its breath for a better year.
“I hope things will continue in the right direction,” he said.