New Jersey restaurateurs waited a long time for the day to come when they could once again fill their establishments to capacity.
So when Gov. Phil Murphy made the announcement in early May relaxing capacity restrictions and seat customers at the bar, it was expected to be an occasion for celebration.
But few restaurant owners have been in the mood to celebrate lately. It turns out that coming out of a pandemic isn’t any easier than heading into one.
While 2020 felt like one long harrowing crisis, this year has brought on many new crises of its own. Like the dishwasher shortage. The foam container shortage. The lobster shortage. And, of course, the Great Chicken Wing Shortage of 2021.
“We are having more problems now, honestly, than during COVID,” says Giovanni “John” Balsamo, who co-owns Villaggio Iccara in Yardville with his wife, Phyllis. “Yes, the drop in the amount of business was not good, but also we cut down on huge expenses so we survived, and we had a beautiful take out business. But now I’m having more trouble figuring it out. Between food cost and labor … it’s not sustainable.”
Restaurants know that things will happen from time to time to disrupt the supply chain: a temporary milk shortage can cause cheese prices to rise, mudslides in California can send produce prices through the roof for a few weeks, until supply returns to normal.
“You cope with that,” Balsamo says. “What we cannot cope with is when a case of wings goes from $68 to $139.”
A specialty of the house at Iccara is an appetizer of chicken wings that are roasted in the restaurant’s wood-fired brick oven. But in May, Balsamo took the wings off the menu, rather than raise the price of the dish to reflect the rise in his cost.
“People love our wings. so they say, ‘Why don’t you charge $3 more?’ Because I love my customers,” he says. “They’ve supported us for 30 years. I don’t want to do that to them.”
Balsamo says scallops that recently cost him $18 a pound now cost $34, and other shellfish are along similar lines. The Maine Public Broadcasting Network reported last month that Maine seafood shacks were charging as much $34 for a lobster roll.
Balsamo said he probably will have to increase the prices on many items on his menu by a dollar to a dollar-fifty, which would not cover the price increases, but which would at least help him close the gap. Customers may not always believe it, but restaurateurs are usually reluctant to increase their prices.
“There is a line that you don’t want to cross. You don’t want people to think it’s too expensive to go out to eat, let’s find an alternative,” Balsamo says. “The less the price, the more business you do. But if it costs you $1,000 more every week to buy chicken, you’ve got to increase prices at least a dollar.”
So why the rise in prices now? Weather is one reason. A huge winter storm swept the Southwestern United States and Mexico in February, leaving huge swaths of Texas without power for days. The poultry and livestock industries are still bouncing back from losses suffered as a result of the storm.
A harsh winter has also been cited as a factor in the decreased supply of Maine lobsters. Bad weather has meant fewer boats on the water, and fewer lobsters in it.
Kinks in the supply chain also continue to bedevil the industry on a number of fronts. The Department of Agriculture, in its April Labor, Poultry and Livestock Outlook, cited labor issues (read: a lack of qualified workers) as a factor in the reduced supply of chicken.
But the main reason prices are up and supply is strained is simply high demand. Prices actually jumped even higher at the start of the pandemic, when there were breakdowns up and down the supply chains — but that came at a time when demand was very low.
Now, restaurants are gearing up for more customers, and some of them want to be fed like they haven’t had a good steak in a year. Those restaurants purged much of their cold-stored food during the lean months of the pandemic, meaning that many are now buying in large quantities to restock their freezers on top of serving fresh products today.
Meanwhile, just too darn many people turned to chicken wings for comfort during the pandemic, and too many home cooks got comfortable using their air fryers over the past year. Retail demand remains high even as restaurants reopen, and producers will have to raise more animals to keep up.
“As the restaurant sector begins to reopen, in the short term, supplying the growing demand for chicken will be a challenge,” wrote the Department of Agriculture in its May Outlook.
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There is also the question of where all the restaurant workers have gone. Now that restaurants are able to fill most of their seats again, most are anxiously on the lookout for cooks, servers, bartenders and dishwashers. And many are finding it difficult to fill those positions.
“I don’t know what is going on with labor,” Balsamo says. “It seems like whoever was supposed to work left to Mars. Does it have to do with the bonuses they sent home? I don’t know, but this is what we’re dealing with.”
Jacqui Mather owns Wildflowers Inn Restaurant just off the Pennington Circle. She believes that unemployment benefits, now extended through August, are one reason for the worker shortage.
“Just about everyone who contacts us about a job, if I’m not paying them $25 an hour to wash dishes, they’re not going to work, because they’re getting enough from the government to stay home,” Mather says.
Mather says that as business picks up, she and her staff are working crazy hours to handle the load. “Our biggest problem is not having a dishwasher right now. We have enough cooks, we have enough servers, but everyone is putting in extra hours to cover for not having dishwashers,” she says. “Our entire staff is probably stressed to the max right now. You might as well just move some beds in for some of these people. Steve (Oliver, a manager) is here day and night.”
As is the case for almost all restaurants, Wildflowers laid off or furloughed many employees early in the pandemic as business dropped off sharply. “If I didn’t have the PPP (Payroll Protection Program) money for payroll, we would have been closed last summer and just tried to ride it out and hope to open at some other time,” Mather says. We’ve gotten two PPP loans so far, and they have kept us afloat.”
Some employees have returned over time, as business has improved, but some never have, even after the restaurant has contacted them to let them know that work was available.
“We’ve tried to reach out to all of them,” Oliver says. “Some people decided not to come back. It’s been for varied reasons. Some people found other jobs. Some people found other things to do.”
One disruption to the restaurant labor pool for restaurants could be the radically altered lifestyle of local college students since the start of the pandemic. Oliver says Wildflowers typically has a fair number of employees in the 20-22 age range, but right now, they don’t have any.
At least Wildflowers has servers and cooks in the fold now. Many restaurants in the area are getting increasingly desperate to fill out their staff in anticipation of a busy summer, like Erini Restaurant in Ewing.
Erini first announced that it had an opening for a line cook on Facebook on April 17. On April 28, the restaurant started offering a $500 finders fee to anyone who could connect them with a cook.
On May 3, the restaurant added a $200 signing bonus into the pot. And on May 10, chef Nick Fifis appeared on a Fox 29 Philadelphia TV news segment pleading for people to come work at his restaurant.
Even that did not work. On May 20, Fifis doubled the finders fee to $1,000. He told Fox 29 he would be unable to open Erini fully, despite the governor’s decree, because he couldn’t find staff. Like Mather, he questioned whether unemployment were to blame.
“The feedback we’ve been getting is why would I go to work when I’m making more money sitting home and doing nothing,” he told Fox 29.
Despite the challenges, Mather says business has been improving lately, and customers seem more confident that it is safe to go out. She has bought two new tents for outdoor seating and is looking forward to the summer.
“We’ve started having live music again at night, so it really pulls in a lot of customers,” she says. “The outside seating has been good for us.”
Villaggio Iccara, 104 Yardville Allentown Road, Yardville NJ 08620. Phone: (609) 585-8668. Web: iccara.com.
Wildflowers Inn Restaurant. 2572 Pennington Road, Pennington NJ 08534. Phone: (609) 737-2392. Web: wildflowersinnrestaurant.com.