On June 30, most COVID-19 statewide restrictions were lifted, sending local restaurants into unknown territory: navigating a post-pandemic world with the virus still lurking. Some restaurants responded by taking down the plexiglass screens over the registers and no longer requiring masks, others remain takeout only.
After a year of fluctuating between being open and closed to reduce the spread of the deadly virus, many restaurant owners feared they would lose their businesses. With restrictions lifted, those who made it through are relieved but are experiencing a shortage of workers, an issue experienced across the country.
“The theme of last year has been spontaneous problem-solving on the fly,” says Catherine Reinhart, co-owner of Sweet Life Patisserie in Eugene.
For Reinhart, who owns Sweet Life with her sister Cheryl Reinhart, business has been booming since the state opened up. She attributes part of it to the recent Olympic trials, which brought people to town, as well as graduation season. But she says much of the uptick in sales has to do with people getting out more.
When the March 2020 shutdown kicked off, Reinhart says Sweet Life closed for six weeks, while people sheltered in place. The pastry shop took this time to work on some projects, and when it reopened, business picked up quickly. Reinhart adds that business still wasn’t the same as it was before the pandemic, since people no longer had reasons to buy large cakes.
She says because the restrictions changed so frequently, the shop decided right away to stick with takeout only, regardless of when indoor dining was allowed.
“We were really blessed that our product lends itself towards being taken away anyway,” Reinhart says.
Sweet Life is still requiring unvaccinated customers to wear masks, to protect others. She also says they are still using to-go silverware and plates.
“We’ve just been kind of baby-stepping towards it and making sure we don’t have to backtrack and stop doing something,” Reinhart says.
The biggest challenge the business is facing now is a staffing shortage. She says earlier in the pandemic it struggled to staff cake decorators and bakers, and is still struggling to staff the kitchen. She explains this is because people with those skill sets may not be looking for work right now and that Sweet Life’s standards in hiring bakers narrows the pool of workers.
As a result, Reinhart says, Sweet Life has cut back on various products and put limits on other things as to not overwork the current staff.
For Seth and Melissa Clark, owners of Blue Valley Bistro in Creswell and Coburg, getting through the pandemic was tough in several ways. Their Coburg location, which opened in fall 2019, had not yet established the customer base to keep up business during the pandemic, Seth Clark says.
“I discovered when the weather cooperated, my sales were fine,” he says. “In the winter months on bad weather days it was a ghost town.” Business kept up in Creswell, he says, mainly because of the drive through. He says he did his best not to reduce anyone’s hours, and had help from a Paycheck Protection Program loan.
Clark says a struggle at the Creswell location during the pandemic was that some local customers who were apprehensive about wearing masks and others were very for it. He says Blue Valley Bistro tried to set the bar early on.
“What I ended up discovering was a real divide,” Clark says. He adds that he was frustrated when the state said vaccinated people didn’t have to wear masks if a business checked vaccinations status.
“I posted the sign on the door, but I told my employees that I wouldn’t put them in a situation where they would have to confront a customer,” Clark says. “We aren’t police officers — just a bunch of baristas and many young adults trying to pay rent.”
These days, Clark says he is relieved and that it feels good to see faces, though there are still some employees and customers who wear masks, to which he adds that he does not pass judgment on who does or doesn’t wear a mask.
The main issue now, Clark explains, is also a lack of staffing making it difficult to keep up with the increase in business. He says more people are coming through the shop than ever before, but the staffing is down. Clark says his workers make minimum wage and tips, as it’s difficult for the coffee shop to offer more. Blue Valley Bistro does offer other perks when they can, for example, in November they are taking the staff to see Postmodern Jukebox at the Hult Center.
“If I had to guess, I think a portion of the labor force just took the past year and made life changes to pursue their dreams instead of working in the service industry,” Clark says.
In downtown Eugene, The Bier Stein owner Troy Potter echoes these struggles. He says he could open the restaurant to full capacity if he had enough staff.
“We are so understaffed right now that I can’t expand my indoor dining options because I don’t have the staff to take care of that area,” Potter says.
He says while Bier Stein has been offering more money per hour to encourage employment, he can’t compete with what people are making while unemployed. Potter adds that on average his staff makes $18 to $25 with wages and tips, and that staff also has a health insurance option and food discounts.
He adds that he is really optimistic and is thinking positively about these bumps in the road.
“I would like to say the Eugene community has been amazing in the last four or five weeks as things have opened up. I’m really excited about the positive messages and feedback we’ve been getting from customers,” he says.
Potter says they had initially put up all types of plexiglass and started with takeout only, offering curbside delivery as well. Only four people were allowed to shop at the restaurant’s large beer cooler at a time. He says the constant shutting down and opening up was difficult, because it meant they had to pivot on a day-to-day basis.
Since state-sanctioned restrictions went away, Bier Stein has lifted some of its restrictions and is seeing an increase in revenue, but Potter says unvaccinated employees still have to wear masks, and other workers continue to social distance and wear gloves for bussing tables and running food.
Both Clark and Reinhart urge patrons to be understanding of staffing shortages and to be kind and patient with the staff that is working.
“Our employees are really striving to do their best by providing good service,” Reinhart says, adding later, “We’re still recovering. It’s going to be a long road to recovery until we can feel solid and offer the services we used to.”