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 by three and shortening hours of operation – after the pandemic of covid-19 caused state leaders to issue mitigation orders that nearly ravaged the restaurant industry.
âWe just made ends meet,â 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 CafÃ© in Ligonier, said she too focused more on paying her bills than a paycheck. To help save money, Detar said she closed the restaurant for six weeks at the start of the pandemic after realizing people largely stayed at home.
When it reopened, it reduced the hours of operation and the hours of its only employee. Nonetheless, Detar went 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 that it could be used during the winter months.
âLigonier is a tourist town so the tourists weren’t there so it was, but the locals really supported me so it was great,â said Detar.
Scenes similar to those in Export and Ligonier unfolded at restaurants in the area after a year in which they were subject to 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 like stimulus money and initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program were implemented throughout the year. Detar noted that she received money from the Westmoreland CARES grant, as part of a federal stimulus package.
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, âGreg told Cammerata. “We’re just grateful that the staff stayed with us and kind of got 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 restaurant paycheck.
Likewise, Sam Murray, owner of Salsa Sam’s, said he did not have loans on his Irwin restaurant, 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.
âWe can honestly say it went well because we kind of adjusted to the situation,â said Murray. âI haven’t, per se, moaned about it, whined about it. â¦ I think what we did well with all of this 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 struggle to get back on their feet, the long-term effects are starting to be felt in the form of a staff shortage that is felt in most industries.
The shortage is forcing local restaurants to continue cutting hours to give employees a break despite being able to open at full capacity. Restaurant chains, however, are responding to the shortage by raising the minimum wage to $ 15 an hour in places like Chipotle, while others, like McDonald’s, are offering a signing bonus.
âYou can’t take a break. â¦ It’s just going to get busier and busier, and we all have 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, âsaid 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.
âIt’s like rebuilding it so that we can pay ourselves and then pay other people,â Gilson said.