2 years into pandemic, restaurant industry once again facing shortages of staff, customers
More than half of Manitoba restaurants have had to close dining room or reduce hours, association says
With multiple rounds of lockdowns and restrictions, it's no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has been hellish for Manitoba restaurants.
Now, owners say the latest spike in cases driven by the Omicron variant is causing major staff shortages, while the cold weather and fear of getting sick is keeping customers away.
Restaurants are limited to 50 per cent capacity in their dining rooms for vaccinated patrons only under the province's current COVID-19 restrictions.
But at Roughage Eatery in the West Broadway area of Winnipeg, co-owners Jessie Hodel and Candice Tonelete closed their dining room in December when COVID-19 cases started rising.
With their small space, it didn't seem right to keep it open, Hodel said.
"We want to keep everyone safe, our family members safe, and just not get sick, right? It's not about the money all the time, it's about keeping everyone safe," Hodel said.
Still, the decision has been hard on them.
"It feels like we're only being able to give half … half our best. And then, even then, it's like, not very many people are coming and it's … it's really tough right now," Hodel said.
Now, more than half their staff are off, either sick or self-isolating while they wait for test results, meaning the staff they have left are putting in long hours filling takeout orders.
"So half the staff and most of us are working 12-hour shifts as opposed to just six- or eight-hour shifts, so most of us stay here all day and all night, but it's worth it right now to keep us afloat."
Roughage Eatery isn't alone. The Manitoba Restaurant and Food Services Association says about half of their members have had to either close their dining rooms or cut their hours in recent weeks, either due to staffing issues or lack of business.
"It just blows my mind how some of these operators have found a way to keep those wheels rolling when you're facing one heck of a stiff headwind," said Shaun Jeffrey, the association's executive director.
"So it's quite it's quite a challenging time, that's for sure."
At Cilantro's Restaurant, co-owner Ritesh Patel said they're keeping their dining room open but aren't seeing very many customers come in.
Patel says he thinks people might be nervous about going out given how many COVID-19 cases there are in the province.
"People are getting more cautious and they don't want to be going out, for any reason. And we have seen less people coming to the restaurant, which is not good for us," he said.
Right now, Patel says he estimates only about 10 per cent of their business comes from dine-in, with takeout orders making up most of their revenue.
Academy Hospitality president Bobby Mottola says his company, which operates several Winnipeg restaurants including Pizzeria Gusto and The Merchant Kitchen, decided to close down its full-service dining rooms temporarily about a week ago due to safety concerns related to COVID-19, but are planning on reopening them later this week.
When that happens, rapid COVID-19 tests will be handed out to staff, which Mottola said his company procured to help keep employees and customers safe.
Though closing the dining rooms has obviously had an impact to the company's revenue, Mottola says January and February are always slow for Winnipeg restaurants anyway.
"If you were to pick a time where you had to go through this, by comparison to say, July, August, September, October, those types of things, then this would be … a better time," he said.
Mottola says what he's more worried about is how nearly two years of living through a pandemic has taken a toll on his staff.
"We've just got to kind of stay focused, stay together and you know, again, push through, to make the sacrifices that you have to make sort of short term to get to the city, to get to the end."
With files from Lauren Donnelly