How Has the Pandemic Affected Restaurants?
By Alex Smith
This pandemic has been a challenge for all of us. Many have lost jobs, we’re all suffering from isolation, and we’ve had to give up a lot of our favorite activities. But some have faced particularly daunting challenges. Certain industries have been shut down or drastically limited in their ability to do business. One of those industries is food service. After a period of being forced to close, restaurants are still operating under strict guidelines to maintain the health and safety of staff as well as customers. I interviewed Will Annett, who along with his wife Erica Lamson, owns and operates Pizza’zza to learn about how life has changed in small, independent restaurants.
AS: How has business been lately compared to previous years?
WA: Compared to previous years, business for the restaurants is down about 30 to 40% About a year ago we started our frozen pizza program and over the course of the year we’ve seen success. We sell at a bunch of stores in Seattle like Met Markets at PCC and we have the coop here in Bellingham and one in Mount Vernon and then we just got into Haggen a few weeks ago. So our frozen pizza part of our business increased by, you know, 200-300% because a lot in the grocery stores versus going out to dinner, but you know, were still down [in revenue] even with that. And so when lunch went away, you know, you can’t really open for lunch because nobody’s outside. But now we have the opportunity to do production that we need to do during the day and then we’re pretty much clean up by 3-3:30 so the restaurant can open and you can’t even tell we did production all day long. So the schedule is working out pretty well. We don’t see ourselves going back to lunch anytime soon and we’re only open from 4 to 9, 6 days a week. I guess we lucked out in being a pizza place and having the frozen pizza business honestly. Chef friends are telling me their sales are down 60-70% and they don’t have anything to replace the loss. It’s scary stuff. And we already decided to stop catering last year. So we didn’t have to worry about canceling all these events and stuff. So that was a nice decision that we met was a tough one last year in October.
AS: Have you noticed trends in what is selling well or not selling as well?
WA: We kind of have three arms of pizza. The pizza we cook is for dine in, take out, and we do curbside pickup and then we have our Take and Bake that we had been planning on starting, but we launched it around the end of March and that helped us a lot. And then on our frozen pizzas we started selling those in house. The frozen pizza six pack that we started in March ended up being a lifesaver, honestly. We’re very fortunate. Looking to the future the trends that were seeing and hearing is pretty much in house delivery, which is where were headed next and I’ve been working pretty diligently on that. I almost have all my systems in place. Hopefully this month sometime we’ll start our own in-house delivery. The only third-party delivery that we use is Viking Foods and we’ll still continue with them because they’re a local company.
We’re just trying to kind of cover all those bases because we know the people aren’t going to probably come in and dine with us. Like even though our dining room is open at 50% hardly anyone ever sits in there. They just sit outside or not at all. It’ll be really interesting to see as we move into the fall and winter whether people do start to come inside. Obviously there’s tons of uncertainty about it.
AS: What have you had to do to adapt to COVID?
WA: Everyone is required to wear a mask inside the building: staff, vendors and customers except when they’re seated and eating. We have a stations available that has Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer. Its right at the door when you come in and be encouraged people to use. We wiping down our surfaces constantly. We have contactless payments. On an hourly basis we go in the bathrooms, wipe the walls and basically clean the bathroom top to bottom. We increased the size of our patio, and seat people at every other table. We try to schedule and set up work stations and whatnot for good social distancing. So people are 6 feet apart with our staff. People can leave contact tracing information if they want, but typically people don’t want to do that.
When someone clocks in they get a questionnaire and we have no touch thermometers the forehead thermometers, so they have to take it out and then they can’t return for a certain amount of time. If somebody wakes up with a sore throat, they know that they can’t come in. They’re off for 3 days after symptoms go away. We ask our staff to make sure they socially distance and not go to parties and things like that. The best you can do is ask but I think most of them feel the gravity of the situation.
AS: Have any of these adaptations been particularly challenging?
WA: In the beginning things were changing on a daily basis, but our staff is going with the punches and has been willing to do whatever it takes so that’s been cool. It’s just been keeping up with regulations and news and you know phases and navigating things. The different government loans and grants have been tough to navigate. And then our landlord gave us some rent concessions for 4 months, which helped out a lot. It hasn’t been easy by any means and the assistance is you know, one of the Other reasons, why are still here so it was nice to have it. It would really be nice if we had some more going to fall winter because yeah, that’s pretty much it. But the whole thing is a challenging question.
AS: Has there been any “silver lining” in all of this?
WA: We totally dropped a lot of our menu. So we don’t need sandwiches or Grinders or a couple appetizers and side items and salads. We took Caesar salad off the menu and just are keeping the mixed green salad. I just can’t keep all that stuff in inventory when nobody orders stuff like that. All that stuff just took a nosedive from the beginning. Everybody is eating way more pizza than they ever have so that’s good. You know, we already had a lot of the things that all the other restaurants had to scramble to do. So we’re pretty thankful for those things. We have the contactless payment system and so we can make some settings where people didn’t have to sign on the screen.
AS: What message would you like to send to customers right now?
Well I see what’s really happened is the independent restaurants are really in trouble, so just supporting the independent restaurants and specially ones like ours that support so many other local businesses, it’s like a domino effect where, for example, our cheese orders are way higher than they were pre-COVID because of our frozen. So, you know, were still supporting flour pickups by picking up twice as much flour now. So that’s just two suppliers, Cairnsprings and Ferndale Farmstead. We’re really keeping them and business as well, you know what was being able to support them through people supporting us. Osprey Hill and Cloud Mountain and all these different places that are giving us food right now.