On a brisk weekend morning, gray skies hang low over Little Rock’s River Market district. Urban dwellers are just coming to life in the chic neighborhood, commingled with out-of-towners craning their necks for a bit of local flavor. It’s the kind of morning to curl up in a booth at the local coffee shop and people-watch as the steam from your cup unfurls.
But this is the era of COVID-19, and such spots are harder to find these days. Take the venerated diner spot squared at the mouth of President Clinton Avenue, At The Corner. Eighteen months ago, patrons would be cozied up to plates of eggs or chicken and waffles with the music of the bustling kitchen in the background. Instead, the lucky ones who get a table are those who eat outside in the restaurant’s improvised outdoor dining room. Or, they pull up for their fare curbside, then keep moving.
Helen Grace King is thankful for such options, as without them, the outlook would be bleak for the popular eatery. And she’s proud of how management and staff have been able to adapt to serving people seated under industrial heaters or meeting them with a smile at their car window.
But, she admits, something gets lost outside.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we were just curbside only,” she said. “My personality is very much about positive reinforcement, and for so long, I was like, ‘What am I missing in my life?’ I realized that my food was literally driving away.
“You know, we make everything from scratch. I never got to hear or see that facial expression like, ‘Mmm, this is so good.’ Or, ‘Wow! This is so great. Thank you so much.’ Or, ‘Hey, tell me about this recipe.’ You kind of just lose that with curbside.”
Any way you slice it, Arkansas’ restaurant industry is a tough business. Razor-thin margins, inconsistent regulations and codes, unstable food costs and the fickle tastes of the public all contribute to restaurants as one of the more volatile business categories.
The mortality rate of such businesses isn’t as dire as frequently advertised —only 17 percent of restaurants fail in year one versus the urban legend 90-percent figure that gets cited. But it’s still one of the riskier market segments in any business community.
And that was before coronavirus. Now, a year later, the picture is only moderately better for the state’s hospitality industry as proprietors continue to hold vigil for something resembling pre-pandemic operating conditions.
Anthony Valinoti, owner of fabled Deluca’s Pizzeria in Hot Springs, said mom-and-pop businesses like his had to change the whole paradigm of how they did business.
“It was very difficult,” he said. “I’m primarily a sit-down restaurant; you come in, you sit down, you get a drink, you order your appetizers, you get your pizza, you get your dessert. Well, to do that all at once was a much different way of doing business than we could have ever imagined.
“I think public health should come first, obviously, especially with something we’ve never witnessed in the 55 years of my life. You had to have the concern for the public first. But when you have to wear the mask, you have to sit so many feet away, it’s not making people feel all that comfortable, let’s be honest. Restaurants are designed to make people feel comfortable. They’re designed to welcome you in.”
Nationally, the hospitality industry is hemorrhaging. In February, the U.S. Labor Department reported 2.4 million jobs have been lost to date in the sector, and recent figures clearly show the states clamping down hardest are doing worse than those taking a more moderate stance. OpenTable.com reported in February eight states where indoor dining is still banned entirely or by individual city or county ordinances.
Of these, only Colorado reported job loss in the 10-20 percent range; the remainder fell into the 20-30 percent range (California, Illinois, Oregon and Washington) or the 30-plus percent range (Michigan and New York). New Mexico, which restricts indoor dining by county, did not report job loss figures for the survey.
Making matters worse, some states have gone through multiple rounds of mandatory restaurant closures, often allowing reopening only after additional safety modifications at the proprietor’s expense. The Wall Street Journal reports in states like California, this open-close-open cycle is even more devastating to the industry’s comeback.
“Nearly 39,000 businesses tracked by Yelp closed and then reopened more than once between March 1 and the end of last year, and more than 17,700 reopened three times or more,” the paper reported Feb. 12. “The Los Angeles metro area had the highest number of multiple closings, nearly 7,000 in all. The New York metro area, by comparison, had nearly 4,000 businesses reopen more than once.
“St. Felix [restaurant] welcomed customers back Feb. 5. It marked the fourth time in the last year that the … dozen or so employees scurried to reopen the Hollywood location and a sister restaurant in West Hollywood due mostly to local pandemic restrictions. [Co-owner John] Arakaki estimated it cost about $30,000 each time.”
Arkansas stacks up well by comparison, even if things aren’t back to pre-pandemic levels, said Montine McNulty, CEO of the Arkansas Hospitality Association. She also praised restaurateurs’ response to both the pandemic and the state and local restrictions that came out of it.
“I would give [the industry] a B+, certainly. I wouldn’t say that their businesses are in the B+ range, but their response has been remarkable,” she said. “I was most impressed because restaurant owners’ immediate concerns had to do with employees and the safety of employees. They were very concerned about that, more so than about themselves.”
McNulty said as the industry fights its way forward, staffing will again be of primary concern, but this time the challenge is to hire and retain enough quality employees to fuel the comeback. Many restaurants are finding the workers they were forced to furlough in the spring weren’t available in the second half of the year, sending them scrambling to shore up replacements.
“Some former employees have been content to stay home with unemployment or the [COVID-relief] checks. Some have done it for family reasons,” McNulty said. “Many of them started looking for other options and other things they can do. Therefore, the employee pool is shrinking, and there’s going to be more competition. That is a big concern that will go on for some time.”
Bar and restaurant owners also decry the way their industry had been portrayed as the primary breeding ground for new COVID cases. Back At The Corner, King said there were extreme restrictions from the very beginning for restaurants compared to other businesses.
“It felt like the only place you could catch COVID was restaurants,” she said of the public perception. “You could max out Kroger and Home Depot and Walmart, but I could only have 20 people in my restaurant. It just didn’t make sense. There was no consistency in the dialogue of what politicians, local and national, were saying. From a business owner’s standpoint, it was extremely frustrating.”
In fact, public relations issues concerning restaurants and COVID continue to be thorny. As recently as November, the industry dealt with fallout from a Nature.com study, led by Stanford University, that called indoor dining a major “superspreader” environment. It further suggested nationwide capping of occupancy at 20 percent would reduce infections by more than 80 percent, even while acknowledging a typical restaurant would lose 40 percent of business in the process.
Not surprisingly, industry groups shot back immediately. The National Restaurant Association called the study “fraught with error,” adding that mandatory caps on occupancy unfairly singles out an industry while making matters worse for businesses barely hanging on as it is. A survey of 400 restaurants by Rewards Network found not only less than 30 percent could operate indefinitely with current capacity restrictions in place, almost half said they wouldn’t last a year.
Valinoti said many in the state’s leadership seem to hold the same perception as the Stanford study, resulting in unfair treatment from a regulatory perspective. He said while no one could have been adequately prepared for the uncharted waters of COVID, mom-and-pop hospitality businesses have become an all-too-easy scapegoat.
“I think the politicians didn’t get it right. I think the politicians sent mixed messages about way too many things,” he said. “We’re going through a time where we’ve never seen this, I’ll give you a small pass on that. But then again, the message was so mixed that I really think they just kicked this can right down the street. I really feel that way.
“There’s nothing like what the restaurants have had to go through. You’ve had strip clubs that are open. How do you close a restaurant at 10 or 11 p.m. and have a strip club open? It’s utterly absurd. The message is so inconsistent about what they were trying to do that some of us small business guys look at it like, are you joking? Like, this is it? You let us do this, but you can’t do that?
“If you’re going to close us down, close us all down. Everybody needs to play by the same rules, OK, and that really hasn’t been the case throughout this entire pandemic. I think they failed miserably.”
As for what the pandemic forced in terms of adaptations that are likely to become a permanent part of operations, King said alternative dining options — be they patio, curbside or drive-thru services — will likely become must-haves for restaurants going forward.
“I think outdoor dining is here to stay, for certain. If restaurants didn’t have it before, I think they want to do it,” she said. “I personally love our curbside operation. We have become really good at it; it was very successful, and it still is. Curbside spoils customers. I know it spoils me from a customer standpoint.
“That said, there’s a huge learning curve when you go curbside. We had to completely redefine what it meant to take our dining experience that people love from At the Corner and put it in people’s cars.”
McNulty said not only does increased number of vaccinations lead the list of things that would have an immediate positive impact on the industry, but she can see a day when proof of vaccination will be required of patrons, much like temperature checks are now.
“Sure, I could see that. They give you a slip of paper showing that you’ve had the vaccine,” she said. “These restaurants can’t survive if the virus is rampant in their business. So yes, [proof of vaccination] is a possibility. I know some people think it infringes on their rights to do what you want to do, but it’s a different world we live in with this virus raging. We’ve all got to be willing to do whatever it takes.”
Valinoti said the most pronounced outcome of the pandemic’s first year is the renewed appreciation that restaurateurs have for their patrons, which spurs better, more conscientious operation overall.
“When we first reopened, the first night, we had 25 people in the place, and I looked at one of my crew and I said, ‘This is amazing,’” he said. “He said, ‘Well, it’s 25 people…’ I said, ‘Yeah; it’s 25 more people than we’ve had in months, and it’s a beautiful thing.’ When you don’t take your customers for granted, obviously, you want to protect them. If there’s anything good that came out of coronavirus, I will say this — airports, airlines, hotels, casinos, bars, restaurants have never been this clean, ever. This is something that should stay that way. It really should.
“We’ve not taken for granted the people that come to our restaurant, and I’ve always been that way. The outpouring of love and affection that people have had for us, whether it was through takeout or whether it was to come sit down, it’s a great thing. It really is.”