The pandemic has taken an immense toll on the service industry.
Restaurants that used to be packed on Friday and Saturday nights are experiencing a severe shortage of not only customers, but staff as well. With the summer coming to an end, many college-aged workers are returning to school, and leaving many local establishments in the lurch when it comes to staffing.
While many restaurant owners have credited the staffing issue to the increase in unemployment benefits by Governor Ned Lamont during the COVID-19 pandemic, some Cheshire businesses see things differently.
“We are trying our best here, but it’s really hard to keep our head above water,” said Tony Futia, owner of Vespucci’s Restaurant, a popular local Italian eatery. “We have our steady take-out client-base, but I want to get open and serve customers, and I just don’t have the staff for that right now.”
Vespucci’s closed its doors at the onset of the pandemic 18 months ago and, unfortunately, has not yet been able to reopen its dining room to serve customers inside. Although Futia has a consistent take-out base, its not enough to satisfy him or his customers.
“People call me every day and ask when we are going to be open again. I tell them, ‘As soon as I have enough workers,’” Futia added. “The problem is that I get a few people who want to work, but I need 10 or 15, not two or three. I want it to be open before the holidays, but we’ll see where we go from here.”
Futia has had to resort to usng younger, high school-aged employees to fill in where he needs, as opposed to experienced staff.
“I have to get high school kids to come in and help me out, which is fine, but they aren’t the experienced kitchen staff that I am used to working with,” Futia added.
While Futia is able to open his restaurant for small events and private parties if reservations are made in advance, he is nowhere near operating at the capacity that he used to.
“It’s insane … we’ve been here for so long and we’ve never experienced something like this,” he added.
Local café owner Linda DeSilva had to begin using younger staff, too, as college students returned to campus and several workers who stayed with her throughout the pandemic were no longer available.
“The college kids are going back to school. I have one girl who is starting an internship, which is great, but I need to find people to replace them,” she said. “As if we didn’t have enough issues with the pandemic, now we don’t have enough staff to keep us open!”
DeSilva, who owns and operates Main Street Caffe, has seen the toll the pandemic has taken on restaurants, and she is nervous about her own business withstanding the next few months.
“It’s really bad, but it’s really bad everywhere,” she explained. “You go out to the Cape (Cod), and those places are only open for a few months out of the year and they are also having issues. I used to be open until 7 or 8 p.m., but not anymore.”
Now DeSilva closes her café at around 3 p.m. each day, whereas before she was able to serve the post rush-hour crowd.
“We still have a line out the door, but I don’t have anyone to work it,” she said. “It’s tough.”
DeSilva added that while her business survived through the worst of the pandemic slump, she may not have enough staff to get through the recovery afterwards.
Fortunately, one local business, C.J. Sparrow Pub & Eatery, has been able to keep 100% of their staff throughout the pandemic.
“It’s something that we’re incredibly proud of,” said owner John Miller. “There are some people who needed to leave for various reasons, but everyone who wanted to stay on staff was able to, and we’ve been pushing take-out and regular dine-in service for a while now.”
For Miller, he’s seen firsthand the impact of COVID-19 on the food and beverage industry and is grateful his business has fared well.
“I work in the beer distribution business during the day and (COVID-19) has just decimated so many local bars and restaurants,” he said. “I am just lucky enough that my staff has been so dedicated to continuing to work throughout.”
Miller credits his success to his staff, their resilience during the pandemic, and their ability to adapt and restructure with the ever-changing guidelines.
“We never really closed down for good. We always had something going, whether it was take-out or something else. We always tried to be available, and I think that is what saved us,” Miller added.