After eight years of co-owning and operating J&M Export Deli, Michelle Gilson feels like it’s her first year again.
Gilson, along with co-owner Jennifer Minnick, has been forced to make several economic changes to export-based deli over the past year – such as cutting staff to three employees and shortening hours of operation – after the pandemic of covid-19 caused state leaders to issue mitigation orders that nearly ravaged the restaurant industry.
“We just made ends meet,” Gilson said. “Don’t pay us, just pay our bills.”
They got federal funds to help the restaurant weather the pandemic, but Gilson said what they were given was only useful for about a month. Now women are squeezing over 50-hour workweeks to keep the grocery store running while they get back on their feet.
Sharon Detar, owner of Connections Café in Ligonier, said she too was more focused on paying her bills than bringing back a paycheck. To help save money, Detar said she closed the restaurant for six weeks at the start of the pandemic after realizing people were largely staying at home.
When it reopened, it reduced the hours of operation and the hours of its only employee. Still, Detar has gone to great lengths to make the restaurant appealing to those ordering take-out meals by tempering a building porch to include a rug and fireplace so it can be used during the winter months.
“Ligonier is a tourist town so the tourists weren’t there so it was, but the locals really supported me so it was great,” said Detar.
Scenes similar to those in Export and Ligonier unfolded in restaurants in the area after a year in which they were the subject of mitigation orders that began last March, when restaurants failed. could be opened to take away. Since then, owners have been at the mercy of ever-changing orders that determined capacity limits and when alcohol can be served.
To help businesses, federal lifelines such as stimulus funds and initiatives such as the Paycheck Protection Program were implemented throughout the year. Detar noted that she had received money from Westmoreland CARES Scholarship, as part of a federal stimulus plan.
Greg and Christina Cammerata, owners of IronRock Tap House, used the funds extensively to pay members of their management team who covered takeout orders after the owners of the Hempfield restaurant were forced to lay off nearly 60 hourly employees while throughout the year.
“Having to fire them just because there is no work, you just hate doing it because you know they have bills, and even if unemployment is available it’s a pain in the neck of go through all the paperwork and do it, ”Greg told Cammerata. “We’re just thankful that the staff stayed with us and kind of came out on the other side.”
In addition to federal funds, the Cammerata – who opened the Hempfield restaurant in December 2019, three months before Governor Tom Wolf made the first covid-19 related stop – also attributed their success throughout the pandemic to fact that they don’t rely on a paycheck from the restaurant.
Likewise, Sam Murray, owner of Salsa Sam’s, said he did not have loans on his restaurant Irwin, a factor that helped him get through the pandemic. Murray, who was extensively involved in the community when the pandemic hit, also attributed his success to take-out sales and his participation in breweries and community events.
“We can honestly say it went well because we kind of adjusted to the situation,” said Murray. “I haven’t, per se, moaned about it, whined about it. … I think what we did well with all of that was that we kind of got involved in the community, and that was so important.
Murray noted that he hadn’t laid off any employees or used federal funding because “I wanted to keep those funds for other restaurants that really, really need it.”
As restaurateurs scramble to get back on their feet, the long-term effects are starting to be felt in the form of a staff shortage being felt in most lines of business.
The shortage is forcing local restaurants to continue cutting hours to give employees a break despite being able to open at full capacity. However, restaurant chains are responding to the shortage by increasing the minimum wage for $ 15 an hour at places like Chipotle, while others, like McDonald’s, offer a signing bonus.
“You can’t take a break. … It’s just going to get busier and busier, and we have all these seats outside and it needs extra servers and what not to cover that up, so it’s a tough time right now trying to have it. people, but we’re working hard on it, ”said Greg Cammerata, noting that as of mid-May, the restaurant had between 12 and 15 positions open.
However, other restaurants like J&M Export Deli are not yet in the hiring phase. While Gilson said there was light at the end of the tunnel as restaurant sales began to increase, it’s not enough to extend hours or bring staff back to what they were before the pandemic.
“It’s like rebuilding it so that we can pay ourselves and then pay other people,” Gilson said.