Restaurateurs contend with new challenges for survival

NEW KENSINGTON (AP) — Restaurants were hit hard by the pandemic and restrictions meant to curb the spread of covid-19 — and, for many restaurateurs, the struggles aren’t over yet.

Navigating a pandemic — and the related rules and restrictions — has been a challenge April Platt never imagined she’d have to overcome. Platt manages House of 1000 Beers, a restaurant her family owns in New Kensington.

“It was very hard to plan for something that was unprecedented,” she said. “You had no one to lean on as a source of expertise to guide you.”

“We just went into survival mode,” she said.

The first, and biggest, challenge was a ban on in-person dining last spring, she said. Restaurant managers scrambled to adapt their business models in an effort to stay afloat.

Platt had to make a heart-breaking decision last spring to lay off all of their servers and bartenders and cut others’ hours. A skeleton crew kept the restaurant operating for take-out and Door Dash business.

With the help of her staff, Platt strategized new ways to attract customers when they couldn’t eat a meal and have a drink inside.

One of their cooks came up with the idea of offering grab-and-go family dinners. But focusing on take-out orders wasn’t as profitable. The biggest profit margin came from alcohol sales, which plummeted.

Plus, they were spending more on plastic utensils, take-out boxes and packets of salt, pepper and ketchup.

Even once restaurants were allowed to reopen, Platt found herself navigating an ever-changing maze of new rules and regulations. A temporary rule that required customers to order food with any alcohol purchase wasn’t popular with customers. Fluctuating capacity limits and changing guidelines made it hard to plan.

Sometimes updated guidelines came with as little as a few hours’ notice.

Platt was relieved to bring employees back. They didn’t lose a single worker during the pandemic — but they did have to craft schedules around employees who had children learning from home or new responsibilities during the pandemic.

And the problems are still far from over, she said.

Now, they’re contending with rising food prices and food shortages. With food costs going up, she said, menu prices may go up soon, too.

Despite continued challenges, Platt said she’s just thankful the restaurant is alive today.

“At the end of the day, I’d like to say we made some good decisions. But it really comes down to the community, everyone around us that kept us afloat,” she said.

Joe Kolek, who owns Anchor Inn in Harrison, said he was lucky to have a well-established restaurant — it’s been a community staple for 67 years — and a loyal customer base.

But even with their support, he’s had to tap into its reserve funds, as the restaurant lost about 60% of its usual business in the course of the last year.

“You’ll never get this year back,” he said. “You’ll never earn back that time, that money.”

Kolek said the hardest part of the pandemic was the feeling that he was losing control of his business. Ever-changing restrictions forced him to lay off some employees and partially lay off others. Kolek’s restaurant never closed completely — they offered take-out when dine-in was banned — but it’s been over a year since they’ve had normal business.

“This wasn’t built for 25% (capacity) or take-out only,” Kolek said. “When I got my taxes, they didn’t take 75% off.”

Kolek expressed frustration and aggravation over the obstacles he’s had to overcome, ranging from multiple shutdowns to staffing shortages.

“It’s gut-wrenching to look at what you’ve built up and wonder if you’ll ever get it back,” he said.

Even as restaurants are permitted to reopen at full capacity, Kolek said staffing shortages will make it impossible for him to reopen completely.

Before the pandemic struck, Kolek had 26 employees. Now, he’s down to 14.

The next step in getting the Anchor Inn back to normal, Kolek said, is hiring much-needed workers.

The road to recovering from the pandemic looks slow, Kolek said. But he’s eager to fill his restaurant again.

The staffing shortage Kolek is facing is impacting many local restaurants.

At Mogie’s Irish Pub in Lower Burrell, owner David Magill is serving as a waiter, busboy, cook and janitor.

“We’re operating shorthanded every single day,” he said, blaming extra unemployment money for discouraging people from finding work.

That’s just the latest in a lengthy line of problems Magill has confronted.

Like many restaurant owners, Magill had closed his restaurant for in-person dining last spring when “non-essential” businesses were ordered to temporarily close their doors. When they were allowed to reopen at limited capacity, he removed tables and bar stools — and even seated mannequins in some booths — to accommodate social distancing guidelines. He posted signs reminding customers to abide by covid-19 mitigation measures.

“We played by all the rules — till December,” Magill said.

Taking one for the team

When restaurants were ordered to again close down for a few weeks around the holidays, Magill had to weigh his options. He could close down, leaving his employees, many of whom are single mothers, with no paychecks or tip money to give their children a merry Christmas. Or, he could stay open and risk citations.

He chose the latter.

“I have people here with children and they’re involved in sports and extracurriculars, and it’s expensive,” he said. “My employees were scared to death they were going to lose their jobs.”

Magill, was cited three times for remaining open during that period.

“I took my hits. I just kept moving forward.”

Though Magill is contending with a plethora of challenges himself, he’s also carving out time to help other restaurateurs utilize social media and navigate the unique obstacles covid-19 has presented.

“Even though some may be competitors, they’re colleagues in this industry,” he said.

Tony’s only layoff: Himself

Meanwhile, at Tony’s Pizza Cafe, owner Andrea “Tony” Coppola tried to make lemonade of lemons when the pandemic forced him to close doors last spring.

He renovated his Freeport restaurant, adding new booths, new lights and a new counter display to better showcase his gourmet pizzas. He even expanded his menu, adding gelato and new pizza offerings.

But even as he was eager to improve his restaurant, Coppola had to contend with the same pandemic problems as other restaurant owners: how to pay the bills and keep his employees.

He focused more on delivery, offered curbside pickup and launched an online ordering platform.

Coppola never laid off an employee during the pandemic. The only person at Tony’s Pizza Cafe to miss a paycheck was Coppola, himself.

“I took the hit,” he said. “I took less paycheck. They made the same money; I didn’t.”

Waitress Natalie Nee said the staff appreciated the sacrifices Coppola made.

“I’m sure it was hard,” she said.

One saving grace Coppola said, was that pizza is affordable and easy to deliver — things that made it popular throughout the pandemic.

“That’s why we’re still open,” he said.

While pizza may have been affordable for his customers, the financial situation wasn’t always so easy for Coppola. There was food waste early on, and now, costs are rising and a worker shortage has forced him to nix pizza deliveries.

But Coppola said he’s still dedicated to the restaurant, his employees and his customers.

“My theory is just make good food and smile to people, even though it’s a tough time,” he said.

Like many restaurateurs, Coppola is hopeful that things will begin to get easier soon. But, as he noted, “Nobody knows if it’s going to get better.”

“I’m lucky to be alive,” he said. “That was a tough year. Hopefully next year will be better.”





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