Loosened restrictions a welcome sight for restaurants, but lack of staff could slow reopening

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Go. Roy Cooper's announcement Wednesday provides a timeline of when restaurants will be allowed to fully open up their dining rooms. While it's a welcome step for restaurateurs, that doesn't mean they're ready to do so.

"We have a lot of walk-ins, a new trend that we saw in the last couple weeks, I've had to take their name and numbers and give them a call back and (tell them), 'I'll call you guys in 15-20 minutes when we have the capacity to take care of you guys,'" said Nick Singh, co-owner of Nomad in Hillsborough.

That's because Singh does not have enough staffing, despite efforts to hire more people. He has been unable to take advantage of recently loosened restrictions, and the restaurant is planning to change its style if it is unable to find help.

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"We would have to change our concept slightly and go to a fast-casual (setting) where somebody could just place their order at a particular location and have their food and drinks dropped off to them at the table," Singh said.

Nomad opened during the pandemic, and like many restaurants, finished 2020 below projections.

"It's extremely frustrating especially through 2020 when we made zero money. We were putting in money month after month to keep everything afloat. So now we have the opportunity to take in more revenue. But our hands are tied because we can't get to them in time, or we can't provide them the service that they're looking for at that immediate time," Singh said.

Even more established restaurants are feeling the pinch.

"Over the course of the year, we're probably down 50-55%," said Steve Thanhauser, co-owner of The Angus Barn in Raleigh.

Thanhauser is grateful for his staff of about 300, many of whom have worked there for years. He added that he believes they would be able to handle full capacity. However, he acknowledged it would be a stretch.

"Make no mistake, nobody wants to operate at these levels or below these levels. And certainly, I am not in a place where I can tell you that I've got bench strength, and I've got lots of support for all those unexpected situations. We're not. And just like so many other restaurateurs, the challenge is so unique" Thanhauser explained.

The hospitality industry has been greatly hurt by the pandemic, as safety concerns, travel restrictions, capacity limits, and supply shortages have created difficult situations.

Though hiring has picked up during the first few months of 2021, a report from the National Restaurant Association and Bureau of Labor Statistics found restaurant employment was down in every state and Washington, D.C., compared to pre-pandemic levels; in North Carolina, it was down 10 to 14.9%.

"Our staff isn't something, it's everything. They're the talent, they're the people, they're the people that put smiles on customers' faces. If I can't open a dining room or a kitchen line with the right number of people, then I won't open it. It's just that simple," Thanhauser said.

Limited staff is not only affecting customers but those who are still working.

"They're very concerned now about worker burnout. The existing employees that have weathered the storm, been with them the whole time, or come back recently, they're getting tired and weary because they don't have workers to fill in the shifts where they need help," said Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Minges and Thanhauser are hopeful that high school and college students can provide part-time assistance during the summer, when capacity limits are expected to be fully removed. However, Minges said she believes more needs to be done to address the larger issue.

"Our industry needs to step up. We need to professionalize this industry. We need to work at the high school level to introduce students to careers in the hospitality industry. (It's) something we've not done very well here in North Carolina," Minges said.
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