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Restaurateurs Talk COVID Impact

The Association for Corporate Growth on Oct. 13 held a panel with four local restaurant executives to discuss the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry.

The event was held at the Hilton Woodland Hills hotel.

While there has been some recovery in the hard-hit sector, labor and supply chain issues continue to impact both fast casual and full-service restaurants.

“We’re trying everything. Originally in September, as unemployment benefits ran out, we thought the (labor) situation would improve, but we haven’t really seen that,” Mark Kulkis, chief executive of Chop Stop, said during the panel. “So some stores have shortened operating hours. If you don’t have enough people, that’s what you’ve got to do. You try to lean into online ordering, reduce labor. … We’re still not where we’d like to be.”

The issues for Chop Stop, a quick service salad chain based out of La Crescenta, have plagued the other restaurant owners on the panel. Panelists Madelyn Alfano, chief executive of Maria’s Italian Kitchen in Van Nuys; Eric Anders, chief executive of Wood Ranch; and David Goldstein, chief operating officer of Sharky’s Mexican Grill, each indicated that their restaurant chains have faced challenges to recruit workers, as well as significant price increases and delivery delays on supplies.

In response, the restaurants have tried leveraging more delivery services, raising menu prices and offering incentives for new hires.

“Virtually all of our stores are hiring,” Anders said of the 16 Wood Ranch locations. At the Corona location, wages for a dishwashing position begin at $19.50 per hour.

Despite the higher-than-average wages, he said, they’re still short staffed. “We’re running very tight. For the most part, we brought everybody back that we had to furlough, temporarily, several months ago. I do think that one of the best things that helped us was we didn’t furlough any senior managers,” he said.

At Sharky’s, the number of applicants is less of a concern than what Goldstein referred to as the quality of the job seekers. After a social media push for new applicants received more than 1,000 responses, Goldstein said the chain hired just six new employees.

Applicants at Maria’s Italian Kitchen are offered a free pizza for interviewing. An employee referral program offers hundreds of dollars to current workers who bring in new hires. While the restaurant retained all workers who wanted to keep their jobs during the pandemic, it’s still hiring for many positions and issues with the supply chain remain a prominent concern.

“It has just becoming a real shock to our customers, but what we have had to do is look at the menu mix and take items off that aren’t really very profitable or that we sell a lot of so that way it makes it easier on our kitchens, and on our supplier,” Alfano said. “We are fortunate we have a central kitchen and warehouse and so, when I was learning about the supply chain issues, I ordered extra meat for meatballs and extra chicken.”

Trends moving forward across the industry, the panel said, include more investment in delivery and online services, implementing kiosk or tablet-based ordering systems in store, as well as finding smaller sites for expansion in the case of quick service and fast casual restaurants.

“We see very interesting patterns with our kiosks and the artificial intelligence gives us a lot of data,” Goldstein said of Sharky’s locations. “It won’t replace cashiers, and it won’t replace the people we have in front of us, but it will augment the way folks use us.”

Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert
Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert
Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert is a Los Angeles-based reporter covering retail, hospitality and philanthropy for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. In addition to her current beat, she is particularly interested in criminal justice topics, health and science stories and investigative journalism. She received her AA in Humanities from Moorpark College in 2016, her BA in Communication from Cal Lutheran University in 2019 and followed it up with a MA in Specialized Journalism from USC in the summer of 2020. Through her work, Katherine aspires to help strengthen the fragile trust between members of the media and the public.
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