Houston restaurant owners face uncertainty following the summer COVID-19 pandemic

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) – For Chris Shepherd, most days since Texas reopened have felt like a country line dance: one step forward, two steps back.

The James Beard Award-winning Houston chef and restaurateur said after more than a year of warring the effects of COVID-19 on his concepts, Georgia James, Hay Merchant, UB Preserv and One Fifth Mediterranean are seeing signs of life flourishing.

But as more and more customers get vaccinated against the coronavirus and step outside again, time has suddenly become the newest threat to their business.

“We don’t know what this summer is like and that’s terrifying,” Shepherd told ABC13 at City Hall on Thursday evening, focusing on the challenges facing the restaurant industry during the pandemic. “People can travel and go now, and we all know Houstonians want to go.”

The owner of the Three Brothers Bakery, Janice Jucker, thinks she is blessed. The grocery-like model in her store meant business continued throughout the pandemic, but she said she felt a change was imminent.

“Honestly, I think we’ll probably be down this summer because people are going on vacation, and last year they didn’t,” Jucker said.

More than 10,000 Texan restaurants had to close during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 85% of Texan operators say their restaurant’s profit margin is lower than it was before the COVID-19 outbreak, according to the Texas Restaurant Association.

Six years of restaurant growth were wiped out by the pandemic. Nationally, restaurants lost $ 240 billion in sales in 2020 and 2.5 million jobs have disappeared as the US continues to grapple with the pandemic.

Restaurant owners we spoke to said an infusion of Congressional funds could help, but the demand for help has been overwhelming.

In March, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, which included the $ 28.6 billion restaurant revitalization fund to cover pandemic-induced lost revenue from restaurants, food trucks, bars, taprooms and breweries.

US MP Lizzie Fletcher said the fund faced a serious deficit through May after more than 372,000 applicants responded for a total of $ 76 billion. She said she is now struggling to get more money into the hands of the restaurant owners.

“Houston is a food town. We’re so proud of the variety, the different locations and the fantastic food, and that’s important, ”said Fletcher. “There is no better example of a community where restaurants are truly the heart of the community than here in Houston.”

The lack of staff in the hospitality industry and the demand for higher wages add to the concerns of both restaurant owners and diners.

Shepherd said his team looked at both issues from every angle, but says salary increases would require the cost to be passed on to guests at a time when everything is more expensive.

“What happened last year broke a lot of things,” said Shepherd. “The food chain broke. Fryer oil rose from $ 19 per container to $ 39 per container overnight. Beef prices are skyrocketing.”

Jucker said solving systemic problems that affect many Houston workers, such as access to health care and who will take care of the children, could go a long way in attracting new employees.

“Affordable childcare is a huge issue, especially in this industry where we employ a lot of young people,” Jucker said. “They are essential to America’s economic recovery.”

The restaurant owners we spoke to also said that getting clarity on whether to repay their remaining loans from the paycheck protection program is an important factor in their recovery from the pandemic.

Would you like to help restaurant and hospitality workers recover from the pandemic? Visit the Southern Smoke website to learn more.

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