Dining businesses relay updates and challenges faced thus far this year, including fluctuating mask mandates, staff shortages and more
By Hannah McClellan | Photography by Cornell Watson
Brad Weddington remembers last Valentine’s Day well. It was 35 degrees, raining and, most notably, the patio tables at his downtown restaurant, NanaSteak, were nearly empty.
“Would you come out here and eat in this?” he recalls his brother and business partner, Graham Weddington, asking. “It was depressing,” Brad Weddington said. “We actually would have saved more money by closing during those times” when the weather was poor and the restaurant only offered outdoor seating.
Two months later – after all its employees were fully vaccinated – NanaSteak opened for indoor dining for the first time since it closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19.
North Carolina lifted its capacity and social distancing restrictions for all businesses the following month, allowing restaurants to serve more guests and make up some of the profit lost during the strictest phase of shutdown. Restaurants, hotels and bars in North Carolina posted a year-over-year decline of $4.52 billion in taxable sales between March and December 2020, yet they secured less than 5.5% of federal and state relief provided to businesses in the state, according to a report by the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.
“Now we’re as busy as we want to be,” Brad Weddington said. “We’re still finding, like everyone else, that our front-of-house staff is wonderful, but kitchen wise, we’re just missing some bodies.”
Other restaurants across Durham are facing a similar reality, said Downtown Durham Inc. President/CEO Nicole Thompson. As other challenges wrought by the pandemic lessen, another has emerged: finding and hiring enough staff.
“We are hearing that things are difficult, and that has been a constant thing, no matter where you go in the country – so that’s no different downtown,” Thompson said. “But it is mostly having enough workers. I think anything that is coming in second to that is so far down the totem pole. Right now, the whole focus is being able to open fully and not being able to do that because of lack of staff.” DDI also hosts a jobs dashboard for open downtown positions at downtowndurham.com/jobs.
Experts and business owners interviewed for this story said many factors likely contribute to current staffing shortages in the service industry: the extension of unemployment benefits, need for child care, push for a living wage, and the recent emphasis on mental and emotional health, which the pandemic has exacerbated.
Discover Durham, in partnership with American Tobacco Campus and the Durham Workforce Development Board, hosted a food and beverage job fair in mid-July. There were at least 350 open full-time and part-time positions available across the 35 participating businesses, and 106 job seekers attended. Employers offering sustainable wages of $13+/hour and competitive benefits were prioritized.
Staff at NanaSteak are paid a starting wage of $15 an hour, Brad Weddington said, which he thinks helped with finding staff as the restaurant expanded its dining. But the shortages still keep the restaurant closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and it’s unable to bring back its prepandemic Sunday brunch. The kitchen needs about three to four more employees to do so, Brad Weddington said.
Restaurant jobs are hard work, he said, made more challenging by long hours caused by staffing shortages, which continues to be at the forefront of his mind even though he’s pleased by the amount of recent business.
“It’s hard to really say as far as numbers go, because we turn away so much business now that we wouldn’t have turned away before,” Brad Weddington said of how much revenue they are making in comparison to pre-pandemic times. “They’re not what they were previously, but we’re also operating with much fewer staff.”
“There’s not an aspect of operating a restaurant that hasn’t been dramatically affected in pretty much every conceivable way by COVID-19,” said Nick Hawthorne-Johnson, co-owner of Cast Iron Group.
But Cast Iron Group’s biggest challenge by far has also been staffing, Hawthorne-Johnson said. Its downtown Japanese ramen shop, Dashi, is still not open for lunch because they simply don’t have enough workers. Business this year is better than last year – it looks like they won’t have to be closed for eight months, for starters – but it’s still struggling, Hawthorne-Johnson said.
“Our goal for 2021 is to stop losing money,” he said. “I hope that we can achieve that. I’m not confident, but I’m hopeful.”
‘AS OPTIMISTIC AS WE CAN BE’
The state’s leisure and hospitality sector experienced job losses of 20% between March and December 2020 – accounting for 75% of all North Carolina jobs lost during the pandemic – the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association found.
This impact was felt more in the Durham-Chapel Hill metro area, according to a report from Discover Durham, with leisure and hospitality jobs down 30% during the same time period.
“I started sitting here thinking about what the pandemic looks like through the eyes of a small business owner,” said Susan Amey, Discover Durham’s president and CEO. “And the word is resilience. It’s been so hard through this whole pandemic to predict what’s going to happen next.”
Restaurant owners have been through a lot, Amey said. Many closed their businesses in March 2020, laying off most of their employees. Then owners built out new business models – to-go services and outdoor dining – while navigating complicated funding and grant processes. And they worked to implement and adhere to constantly changing COVID-19 protocols all the while. Then there was the “rather sudden reopening” in May, Amey said, with many owners experiencing workforce shortages.
Now owners face yet another hurdle: responding to the delta variant.
Thompson said this could create a burden for businesses, which, in addition to managing and operating a restaurant, would then also have to enforce masking again, as Durham County declared a new state of emergency and mask mandate in early August.
“A year and a half ago, when we were in the midst of this, a lot of that burden did fall on the restaurants to ask people to mask up when they were slowly allowing small groups back inside,” she said.
People might also feel less safe coming downtown as the number of COVID-19 cases rises, Thompson said. Nearby offices might continue encouraging remote work, and conferences may opt to remain virtual – all of which is likely to cut into the number of people coming to and eating downtown.
When the pandemic hit, “it just kind of set everything back,” Brad Weddington said. He and his partners went from looking to hire a general manager and buying new restaurants to just trying to keep NanaSteak open.
“We went from all of this scrambling where everything’s going super great, and then scrambling to see what kind of bills we need to pay when we shut down, so there’s something to come back to.”
‘BE READY TO PIVOT’
Greg Overbeck, the marketing director and co-owner of Chapel Hill Restaurant Group, said his catering company and five restaurants across the Triangle – three of which are in Durham – had a similar experience.
“Obviously, the pandemic has been the most difficult thing we’ve ever had to deal with, by far,” he said. “It was just unbelievable. Our main concern was our people. How were we going to take care of all of these employees who have been so great for us and so loyal to us for all these years?”
All of the group’s restaurants have been able to fully reopen, Overbeck said. Staffing is a problem at all their locations, but business is “infinitely better” this year compared to last.
“We’re trying to be as optimistic as we can be,” he said, “and we’re certainly seeing the business coming back.”
Moving forward into the fall, Durham business owners anticipate the return of university students and hope for increased traffic from traveling and conference-attending employees. Thompson said Downtown Durham Inc. is also working with the city to make temporary outdoor seating permanent.
“That way, those restaurants that want to continue to do outdoor seating [in] parking spaces will be able to do that safely,” she said.
Delta brings with it uncertainty for businesses, and Brad Weddington said he and his partners are focused on one main lesson they’ve learned over the pandemic: how to adapt.
“What it’s taught us and other restaurants is just to be ready to pivot,” he said. “We can have plans, but just know that those plans have the ability to change.”