At a recent East Naples Civic Association meeting a panel of four local restaurateurs gave attendees insight into how they managed their businesses through one of the biggest challenges ever faced, a pandemic and subsequent quarantine.
Rebecca Maddox from 360 Market and Celebration Park, Asif Syed from 21 Spices, Patrick Jira of Outback Steakhouse and Mary Beth Atwood from Alice Sweetwater’s Bar and Grill spoke on how they faced the shutdown, what they did to survive and what they learned from the experience to propel their businesses into the future.
Mary Beth literally worked her way up through the ranks at Alice Sweetwater, all the way to owner. When she said that “January and February of 2020 were two of the best months local restaurants had ever seen,” all concurred. At the time of the governor’s order to close, they had 32 employees. They finished up and closed. Mary Beth called an employee meeting the next day and told her employees this was new territory; they’d never been through anything like this before and they began to plan their next steps. They planned take out, menu, hours and staff. She made sure everyone got a few hours per week. “Locals were so generous and kept staff going. We had these family meal deals that just took off. It was amazing. We were able to pay the bills and make it work. I feel so fortunate.”
Patrick Jira, agreed, “It was the best season since we opened in 2014. Luckily, we were one of the first Outback locations to offer to-go service and delivery. We were able to keep 20 people on staff and keep the doors open. We did not take any government money and are a fiscally conservative company overall.” Only half the staff even when they fully opened the doors. “The employment aspect has been a challenge and we’ve done a lot of cross training and had to be creative.”
Chef Asif Syed started 21 Spices six years ago and also part-owns Kareem’s Lebanese Kitchen.
Chef said it was strange because he felt he couldn’t be away from the restaurant, “it is my love and passion, so every day I would go and sit.” His partner called and said, “Why don’t you cook? Go in and open the kitchen, let’s do community dinners and lunch. There are a lot of people unemployed and hungry. God has given me enough. Keep your kitchen open, make box lunches and go curbside and hand them out free, I will cover cost and labor.” Some of Asif’s friends in the business even volunteered their time, feeling that charity starts at home. “People from the neighborhood came and we served close to 10,000 meals during that time. Things began to slowly open and people started supporting me, they had come to know the quality of 21 Spices food. Things are going very good this coming season.”
Rebecca Maddox decided to shut down the day before the governor issued the closure for both 360 Market and Celebration Park. “Staff at 360 Market and Celebration Park were told to come in and clean as there is always more of that they can do. I figured we needed to raise $500,000 for 50,000 meals and employ 50 people to supply those in need.” Rebecca got on the phone and started calling people. “We didn’t make it quite to $500,000 but we had 70 people at full pay coming in and cranking out these quality meals. Someone with Catholic Charities would pick them up and deliver them to some of the poorest, hardest hit areas. We wanted to make meals we would make for ourselves, so what we learned was how to make a $5 lunch and a $10 dinner really well. The second phase for us was to offer it to the community, everyone needs a leg up right now. We covered our costs and kept things open.
I think crisis leads to opportunity. It can change your course but as long as you’re thankful and we can make the meals, we’ll do it. Come September and October, we will be very busy. Our main focus going into October is going to be more labor.”
Chef Asif agrees. “It is going to be an extremely busy. Season will start early and we will need to utilize local labor as much as we can. Everyone wants to move to this area.”
Patrick agrees, stating that 90,000 restaurants closed permanently during covid. “The fact that all of us stayed open speaks volumes of the community and staff. We are very appreciative of that. We just don’t have the staffing and that will be the biggest challenge. People are moving here and want to live here year-round. With the staffing issue, you have to be more open-minded, you may have to train more or cross train and promote within.”
Mary Beth said, “labor is affecting every company everywhere.” In her 33 years, it is the most difficult she has seen. Another factor is the cost of everything. “What used to be $40 case of wings is now $170 a case.”
All agreed they had difficulty getting product this year. Not only is product an issue, but so is shipping and delivery. Labor shortage is affecting every aspect of business.
Chef Laura Owen from CJ’s on the Bay was in the audience, she asked the panel how the imminent $15/hour increase would affect their restaurants. Some mentioned an increase in food runners versus wait staff. One mentioned losing four cooks to become wait staff because it was more lucrative which led to a discussion on the equity of splitting tips among kitchen and wait staff. It was also noted that since the pandemic has closed borders, foreigners are not here looking for work at any level of restaurant work which was the norm in the past.
The next East Naples Civic Association luncheon will be held June 17th at the Lely Players Club. www.EastNaplesCivic.com