Restaurant Association of Maryland President and CEO Marshall Weston said Wednesday that one of the major long-term challenges facing the industry is the rise in the price of commodities and the concern that restaurants may have to charge customers more money for food and service.
The threat looms at a time when many of Maryland’s restaurants are struggling to get employees that were let go at the start of the coronavirus pandemic to come back to work, according to Weston.
Below is an edited excerpt of an interview with Weston. He also discussed, the state’s decision to lift capacity restrictions on restaurants, employee retention issues, and vaccination concerns with regard to restaurant staff.
It has been almost two weeks since the state lifted capacity restrictions on restaurants. How is business?
Weston: Right now consumer confidence seems to very high in terms of their (customers) willingness to go out and dine indoors and outdoors at restaurants-which is great news and something that restaurants were concerned about a year ago with regard to whether or not people would be so willing to be out in public again.
With that being said, we are still having issues with having enough employees to meet the demand of all the customers wanting to come out. And so right now we are just asking for the public to have patience and understand that restaurants are going to need some time to ramp back up and get employees in the building and get them retrained and do all of the things that are necessary to run at full capacity.
In many parts of Maryland ‘help wanted’ signs are a frequent appearance on the doors and in the windows of restaurants. Why are so many restaurants having trouble filling those positions?
Weston: It is not just a Maryland problem. And it is not just restaurants. There are many industries that are dealing with workforce issues right now. From what we can see there is not one specific reason why people are not returning to work or cannot return to work.
Certainly, the boost in federal unemployment benefits and stimulus checks plays a part in this. But we are also finding that many people do not have access to child care. Child care has not ramped up to its availability that was there prior to the pandemic. We have many people that still have young children who are at home for school and have not returned to school in person.
We also see in our specific industry that there are a lot of people who work part-time. And those part-time people generally have full-time jobs and they work those part-time jobs to earn extra money for vacations, for home improvements, and private school tuition. And those people have not returned to work as of yet. We are hopeful that as school ends and summer begins that many of those people will come back and help us to fulfill our workforce needs.
Memorial Day weekend will be here in a few days. How important is it for restaurants to start the summer with a strong showing?
Weston: Historically, it is the kick-off for a great summer season for a lot of different places. And typically during summer we see more people out and about, whether that be shopping or outdoors, because they have more free time as school lets out and things of that nature.
We do anticipate that people are gradually going to be out more and more, especially with the excellent vaccination record that we have here in Maryland. The problem we are going to have is that it is going to be a slow start to the recovery for restaurants because we just do not have enough employees to meet the high demand.
Some restaurants are choosing to be closed maybe a day or two when typically they are not. Some are going to have to cut back their menus and their hours because of a lack of employees. We are not going to come out of the gate quickly. It is going to take some time to ramp things up.
Many people are still afraid to go to restaurants whether it be because of the variants or other concerns related to health and safety issues. To help put customers at ease, should restaurants require their staff to be vaccinated?
Weston: Restaurants have not contacted our association asking for guidance regarding whether or not they should require their employees to be vaccinated. And there are pros and cons to each decision. But I think overwhelmingly from the lack of discussion of this issue from our membership, it appears to me that the overwhelming number are not going to go down that road and require employees to be vaccinated.
I think the state of Maryland has gone above and beyond in incentivizing people to become vaccinated and in educating people on the reasons why. And I think that is why we have such high numbers here. I believe that over time more people will become vaccinated and the exposure to the virus will probably become less over time. And the numbers are starting to bear that out.
What is the biggest challenge restaurants face moving forward?
Weston: For the short term, it is getting enough employees to meet the demands of customers. That is the short-term problem. But when we look ahead, beyond that our concern is still the rise in prices of commodities. The lack of the ability of a lot of these items. And, over time, if those things do not shake themselves out-I think restaurants have concerns about raising prices.
Beyond that is: ‘What does the future look like as a whole?’ And the economy. Because when the economy is doing well, restaurants do well. We certainly are sensitive to how every industry is doing, how people return to work, and how they are feeling with regard to consumer confidence.
Because that disposable income is sometimes spent in restaurants. And we are hoping that we can move into a robust growth period sometime in the near future. But the reality is that most restauranteurs feel that a true recovery is two to three years away.