Atlanta restaurants face new obstacles as COVID restrictions loosen

Now that Atlanta restaurants such as Canoe, shown here on this year's Mother's Day, are getting busier, issues such as staffing are a problem. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Now that Atlanta restaurants such as Canoe, shown here on this year's Mother's Day, are getting busier, issues such as staffing are a problem. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

From non-socially distanced tables to maskless servers, the dining landscape is beginning to look like old times. But behind the scenes, things are different.

Restaurants that have navigated their businesses through the pandemic are facing a new round of issues that affect everything from reservations to menus to safety protocols.

Staffing is the most pressing concern.

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The latest numbers from a National Restaurant Association survey reveal that employee counts at restaurants remain well below normal, while more than a third had either higher-than-normal sales in March or sales that were close to normal. The survey found 84% of operators stating that staffing levels were lower than what they would normally be in the absence of COVID-19. In addition, almost half of restaurants claimed to be more than 20% below normal staffing levels. Fine-dining operations felt the most impact, with staffing 54% below normal.

“We’ve been hiring for everything,” said Bruce Logue, chef-owner of Italian restaurant BoccaLupo in Inman Park. In the past few weeks, Logue has brought on more dishwashers, cooks and servers. Still on the hunt for a host or hostess, the staff count is now up to 19 compared to pre-pandemic times when it hovered just below 30. “We’re climbing,” he said.

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Logue needs those extra hands to meet the increased demand for on-premises dining as more folks take to eating out after a year of takeout and home cooking.

One unit of measure that indicates increased traffic is the number of meals or customers served, known in industry-speak as a cover.

“We did 130 covers on Friday and Saturday, with 118 on the waiting list on Resy. The demand is there, for sure, but there’s only so much you can do with one bartender and short on kitchen staff,” Logue said.

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Restaurants are no longer required to socially distance tables, and consumer confidence in restaurants is rising. According to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, nearly 61% of respondents stated they would feel safe dining in a restaurant at full capacity. Even so, Logue said that he won’t seat at full capacity without adequate staff.

Vince Palermo, general manager of Vinings fine-dining destination restaurant Canoe, is in a similar boat. “We’re looking to fill everything,” he said, citing an employee count that is 20% fewer than during pre-pandemic times. “We have not returned our dining room to pre-COVID capacity simply because I don’t have the people to schedule.”

The number of reservations that Canoe accepts each week is dependent upon staff availability.

Palermo stated that being short-staffed has impacted not only front of house operations, but also the kitchen. With fewer cooks on the line, the menu is still in recovery mode. “While still an ample offering, we are doing less than we optimally would like to do because we don’t have the people to cook the food,” he said.

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Some companies have taken to offering hiring bonuses. Others, like CRU Food & Wine Bar, are giving incentives to their employees to recruit on the company’s behalf, according to managing partner Foster Smith, who stated that staff was down 15%-20% below normal.

The juggling act includes more than matching staff size to table reservations. Throughout the pandemic, restaurants have tried to keep staff and guests safe while also adhering to tenets of hospitality. At times, restaurant workers have found themselves in hostile situations when attempting to enforce mask policies, social distancing and other protection measures.

Restaurants are still navigating safety protocols even though people are being vaccinated, daily reported coronavirus deaths have plummeted in the state, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated its guidelines to include that fully vaccinated Americans do not need to wear masks outdoors, or indoors in many instances. According to an AJC poll, 1 in 4 Georgians say they will not get vaccinated.

Workers across the state are no longer required to wear a face covering when interacting with guests, yet it’s up to individual restaurants to decide whether to maintain mask requirements.

Employees at Milton’s Cuisine & Cocktails in Milton have rid themselves of masks while not far away at Osteria Mattone in Roswell, servers still wear them.

At Canoe, mask wearing became voluntary for staff and customers on May 10. “It’s been well received by guests,” Palermo said. “Guests are saying, ‘It’s so nice to see your face again.’”

Diners like Debra Kachnic of Douglasville are unfazed by staff no longer wearing masks, but others don’t have the same comfort threshold.

Even though fully vaccinated, East Point resident Carlyn Redding, 68, says she will not dine at a restaurant if the front of house staff isn’t wearing masks.

Ronald Horist of Dacula is also not ready to throw caution – or his mask – to the wind. “Even though I’m fully vaccinated, I still wear a mask,” he said.

Neither Horist nor Redding is eager to visit a restaurant that is back to full capacity. “I prefer not to be completely packed,” said Horist, who participated in the AJC poll along with Kachnic and Redding.

The key to managing a broad spectrum of guest desires is flexibility, said Mimmo Alboumeh, chef-owner of Botica, a Mexican-Spanish fusion restaurant located in the old Watershed space on Peachtree Road in Buckhead.

“You have to be flexible. Dealing with guests is hard. We want to give them an experience to come back.” The staff at Botica wears masks, but Alboumeh said that now that he is vaccinated, when he interacts with guests, he tries to match their comfort zone. “You want me to wear a mask, I’ll wear a mask. You want me to take off my mask, I’ll take it off,” he said as he greeted guests dining on the patio during a busy Mother’s Day that saw between 750 and 800 covers.

Unlike the majority of restaurants, Botica is not facing a staffing crisis. Open only since January, it counts nearly 70 people among its ranks, 80% of them full-time workers. Alboumeh credits the attraction to a flexible, understanding work culture and higher-than-average pay across all positions. “I am treating them better than anyone else will treat them,” he said.

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