Inflation, uncertainly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and both supply and staffing shortages are among the greatest challenges facing the restaurant industry, Restaurant Association of Maryland President and CEO Marshall Weston told MarylandReporter.com on Friday.
Below is an edited excerpt of an interview with Weston. Weston discussed how restaurants fared this summer, how the Delta variant is affecting business, and long-term challenges facing the industry.
MarylandReporter.com: All things considered, how did the state’s restaurants fare this past summer?
Weston: Restaurants started out the summer doing pretty well. I think that there is starting to become some consistency in the traffic that restaurants are seeing from the public. The confidence in the public to be out and about seems to be growing.
Restaurants were having trouble running at fully capacity because they did not have enough employees to meet the demand. We saw that through most of the summer. I will say however, that for the last four or five weeks, restaurant traffic has slowed considerably.
When we saw the media attention focus on the Delta variant it made people very hesitant. And we saw people canceling parties and reservations at restaurants. We are a little concerned that as these variants pop-up that they are going to affect people’s desire to be out and dining in public. We are hoping to get beyond that. But it has been a rough month with decreasing traffic.
MarylandReporter.com: Following up on that, how concerned are you about the Delta variant in the long run?
Weston: From what we have read and what we have learned it is going to be something that I foresee that we are all going to have to deal with and live with for awhile. But overall, we are pleased that none of these variants have led to the point where any elected official was considering shutting businesses down again. I think we are beyond that.
I think the robust vaccination efforts that we have had in the state play a large part as to why we can start to think about moving forward. Although it is clear that we are going to have ups and downs.
MarylandReporter.com: Given that many people are more comfortable dining outdoors rather than indoors, how do you expect the cooler weather to affect business?
Weston: Overall, we do not see that as a major concern. If people have the preference, they like to sit outside on a very nice day. But from what I have seen there has not been a very large resistance to dining indoors at this point in time. I think this has a lot do with the high vaccination rates that we have around the state.
People will dine indoors. But some people do like dining outdoors as well. And I think you will see a lot of places try to accommodate that in the colder weather. But we are not seeing a decrease in indoor traffic just because of the colder weather.
MarylandReporter.com: Employee retention has been a pervasive problem for the restaurant industry throughout the pandemic. How do things stand right now as far as that issue is concerned?
Weston: It is still too tough to tell if were are going to get a lot of people jumping back into the job market. It is not just restaurants. We are seeing this across the board in lots of different industries. There are clearly lot of people sitting on the sidelines and not coming back to work yet. There are a lot factors that contribute to this. We have certainly seen a lot of individuals decide to get out of the workplace all together for different reasons.
Restaurants hire a lot of part-time people. And many of those part-time people have jobs doing different things. They work part-time in restaurants to earn money for vacations, home improvements, buying a new car, sending their kids to private school, etc. etc.
I think it is going to take a while to get those people back in. We are hoping that we are going to see more progress in getting people back to work in restaurants. That is what we really need to run at 100% capacity and start digging out of this pandemic.
MarylandReporter.com: What is the greatest challenge for restaurants moving forward?
Weston: Restaurants are still concerned about the price of a lot of products. In addition to that, it is even the ability to get some items moving forward. It is very problematic when a restaurant orders 100 of something but because of supply issues are only delivered 50. And that coupled with the need for more employees-that all puts stress on the restaurants that are trying to come out of the pandemic.
We need some time for these issues to kind of shake themselves out and hopefully get restaurants on a consistent path were they can plan and be able to avoid the ups and downs. The biggest problem right now is that it is not a consistent road where we can look and plan. It is still having to deal with the ups and downs almost on a daily basis.