Omicron poses new threats to restaurants and bars

After a lull in reported COVID-19 cases in the fall and hopes that things might be nearing normality, restaurants are again reporting disruptions and sharp falls in sales.

According to a new study by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, 58% of restaurants and bars across the country lost more than half their revenue to Omicron surges. The fast-moving variant, which can infect vaccinated and boosted people, comes after a disastrous two years and provides new challenges and personnel setbacks.

Restaurateurs are finding new – and old – ways to spin this time around with no shutdowns or further dining guidelines by county officials. Some are sue their insurance companies Overcompensation for COVID losses. Some are continuing the recent surge in indoor service, while others are reverting to takeout-only models due to test shortages and delays in results. There is no clear path and little direction.

“Restaurants were very busy, things were looking really good, people felt comfortable dining inside,” said Caroline Styne, co-owner of Lucques Group and board member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which funded the nearly $1,200 January survey -Restaurants. “Even with Delta and all the countermeasures we took to work through that, we were really optimistic – and then with Omicron, it really brought us back to 2020.”

One of her restaurants lost nearly $1 million in 2020, she says, and it stayed in the hole in 2021. Styne and the restaurant advocacy group are calling on the federal government to refill that Restaurant-Revitalisierungsfonds; More than 177,000 restaurants have not received the federal grants, and even those that were able to receive a grant are still struggling.

“So many restaurateurs went into personal debt to keep this going,” Styne said. “I keep saying I feel like we’re all in a big boat taking on water and we’re throwing cups out but someone keeps throwing gallons in.”

Justin Pichetrungsi revived his parents’ business at Sherman Oaks in 2020 when indoor dining closed, taking over an alley running alongside Anajak Thai Cuisine and launching new dining programs like weekly pop-ups Thai Taco Tuesday and an omakase menu. They brought indoor dining back in the fall of 2021, but after Thanksgiving, the chef-owner saw Omicron numbers rising and decided to temporarily pause, fearing a spike from more vacation travel. The move, he said, is costing his family restaurant about 50% of its earnings.

„[Dine-in] was very busy until the very last day,” said Pichetrunsi. “It was as crowded as it could get and it was like shooting myself in the foot.”

While Anajak’s terrace has seating for 30 to 40 guests, Pichetrungsi feared even switching to al fresco dining wouldn’t be enough to protect his staff. Customers still had to enter the dining room to use the restroom, browse and select wines, and speak to staff. His parents and aunt help run the restaurant, and the chef decided the risk of embarrassing his family and staff was becoming too great.

Diners want a certain level of consistency, he said, and he acknowledges the pivots are confusing. Most customers have supported and understood the decision, although he notes that he has received several emails from customers who were upset that their reservations would have to be postponed. The plan, for now, is to wait for case numbers to go down, possibly until March, then resume al fresco a la carte dining and then bring back omakase, followed by Thai Taco Tuesday.

Keizo Shimamoto is no stranger to running takeout, though he said it breaks his heart serving the ramen he serves took years to perfect in a to-go container, its parts separated and the noodles not cooked to the exact doneness of a dine-in experience. The chef opened his long-awaited ramen shack in San Juan Capistrano in September, and then unveiled a full schedule and menu just weeks before the Omicron wave.

In addition to routine concerns about keeping staff and customers healthy during the pandemic, Shimamoto said the increasing delays in receiving test results have created new hurdles for a restaurant to operate.

“In November we were all tested straight away – the same day or the next morning – and we got results back straight away,” he said. “This time it takes two to three days to schedule a test, sometimes up to a week depending on the site you visit. They are all booked and the results still need three, four, five days. I took a COVID test yesterday. If this comes back positive in 3 days I have to schedule another test and wait a few days then wait another 4 or 5 days to get positive or negative and it delays it even more.

The delays almost brought Ramen Shack to a standstill last week. In November, Shimamoto began making his own noodles in-house; After his daughter was exposed to COVID-19 at school, the chef and his family have been quarantined at home. Shimamoto, the only employee who can make fresh noodles, waited several days until his noodle supply ran out — unless he tested negative and restocked, Ramen Shack wouldn’t have been able to open.

Since the start of the Omicron surge, the chef estimates that 15% to 20% of his staff have tested positive. About 50% of them have shown symptoms (if they do, they stay at home until they test negative). With the industry being so sparsely staffed, even one sick worker can make all the difference to a restaurant’s bottom line. Due to a lack of lunch and dinner staff, Ramen Shack suspended its lunch service — but as soon as one of its chefs, who had been on hiatus, tested negative, they went back to work and restored lunch.

It was a roller coaster ride for Ramen Shack, like so many other restaurants.

“My shop is closed [Jan. 11],” he said. “My staff were able to open with minimal hours yesterday and today, but it’s definitely taken a hit. The front of house staff have been on hiatus for the past week and a half and are not making any money. I see it the same way as the owner: it’s definitely a stressful time, but we’re tackling it day by day.”

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