City restaurants go from pandemic frying pan to burning prices

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Double teams every day, more customers than they can accommodate, and Yelp reviews that make you want to pull your hair out – this is what the last few months of post-pandemic restriction have been like for Jayme Watts and Tony Fish at Sassafras Eclectic Food Joint.

“Half the people here right now are in training,” Watts told Appeal, looking at the Sassafras dining room. “And they are doing very well! But we are constantly training.

The nationwide trend of labor shortages and rising food prices hit Carson City. Fish and Watts may be suffering the worst, but they’re not the only local restaurateurs to lose sleep through long hours and stressful conditions.

Help with wanted signs and high demand

According to Watts and Fish estimates, Sassafras recorded almost 25% more activity than pre-pandemic levels. Getting employees at the door to meet this demand has been an uphill battle. Finding trustworthy and reliable workers is even more difficult.

“We turn down business. We turn down business every day because we can’t live with it, due to understaffing, ”Watts said.

When mandatory restaurant closings first struck last year, Sassafras had to downsize to a reduced crew to stay afloat. They then started a “Feed a Cop” program, offering free meals to service agents – to support the community and get rid of perishable items. Recovering from that stress, hiring a full crew and getting back to full operations is going to take longer, Watts and Fish said. They hope that maybe by next year things will balance out.

Sassafras is not alone in their struggle. Doug Cramer, owner of Mom and Pop’s Diner, couldn’t meet the call for a full interview, but he said on the phone that he wanted to add that all restaurants are struggling to find employees. Usually a restaurant seven days a week, it had to reduce its services to six days a week due to a labor shortage.

Squeeze In also announced reduced hours and intermittently closed locations in Reno and Carson City, all due to understaffing – in particular, a shortage of cooks, a social media post said.

Juan Salazar, owner of Juan’s Mexican Grill and Cantina, said he needed more employees, but not just anyone. He really needs cooking experience.

“Everyone wants to go to the front of the house. It’s at the back of the house, which is the kitchen, that we have problems, ”he said.

He added that he has seen a lot of cooks leave and get into construction. When casinos and restaurants had to lay off staff last year, kitchen workers found construction opportunities. Salazar said he was holding out until winter, hoping the cold outside temperatures would draw some pre-pandemic cooks inside.

But waiting for colder weather is putting restaurants on the spot. The demand for services – both on-site and on-the-go – is skyrocketing. Even though that ends up creating more workers six months or so, restaurants need employees right now to help them get through the tourist season. And, ironically, it’s possible that pent-up demand will drop back to normal levels as restaurants manage to hire staff to meet demand.

It is more than just putting corps in uniform. They need talented workers today, and they need to train them, while filling even more hungry mouths than they’re used to.

Jerry Massad, owner of the Cracker Box, helps an employee with the registry. “The reason we survived (the pandemic) is that my parents were both raised during the Depression,” he told a reporter for Call. “Being a fairly good entrepreneur, I have money in reserve. So that helped us get through the tough times. “

Rising food prices

Not all restaurants face a labor shortage. In fact, for Jerry Massad, owner of the Cracker Box, it’s business as usual – except for the price hike.

In March 2020, he bit the bullet and used his savings to keep all of his staff, even during the state-imposed shutdown.

“There were only one or two people who wanted a conditional layoff. Everyone wanted to work, so we just found things for them to do, ”said Massad.

He said he knows not all restaurants are able to do the same, but he encourages other business owners to have reservations so they are prepared for situations like the pandemic. He saves in advance in order to keep turnover low and avoid changing menu prices.
The latter has been difficult in recent months. Massad said from his recollection that he had the same price since 2019.

It’s no small feat – Tee Jay’s Corner Café at Cactus Jack’s Casino is all too familiar with the pricing dilemma. Owners Chuck McCray and Tee Jay Saputra opened their new location in November, catching the latest wave of pandemic restrictions. They were shocked at how costs have fluctuated since then.

“We see things change on a daily basis in terms of market prices,” McCray said.

“For example, the chicken when we started this business was $ 23 for 10 pounds. Now it’s $ 46, ”added Saputra.

Although they are not new to the food handling industry, this is the first time they have managed a physical location. Many of their frequent customers know them from the Carson City Farmers Market; they have been working on pop-up stands for over a decade.

Writing a frozen menu proved difficult, they said. McCray and Saputra are still learning how to cost them so they can pay the bills while continuing to attract customers.
Salazar chez Juan is also debating whether to increase prices.

“Believe it or not, even the mayonnaise was affected. The mayonnaise has gone up, almost double the price. Typically, it’s about seven dollars for a gallon of mayonnaise. Right now he sits at 14, ”he said on call. “How do you keep your staff and not increase prices? And still trying to make money and make ends meet? “

He admitted he was wondering if he should pay some of his former employees. The predictability of the paycheck would be mutually beneficial, he said.

Soaring ingredient prices have a few root causes, but the general response is that it’s all linked to the pandemic. Business Insider attributes this in part to inflation, shipping delays and rising shipping / fuel costs, national labor shortages and droughts.

Jayme Watts and Tony Fish, owners of Sassafras, race to get employees through their doors. “We did very good business before the pandemic, but we are doing even more business now. So 100% right before the pandemic, compared to 100% now, I don’t even know if we could do it, ”Watts said.

The reverse

Juan’s downtown location has that freshly decorated restaurant feeling. Yellow, green and red walls; luminous floral paintings and wall hangings; mariachi music filling the dining room. They opened this second location in January. This is the third time they’ve hosted a downtown location, and they’ve negotiated a deal to likely stay around the corner of Telegraph and South Carson Street for the next decade.


“We have a strong clientele, and that’s the only reason I decided to come here downtown,” said Salazar.


In fact, Tee Jay’s, the Cracker Box, and Sassafras have said the exact same thing: They are great customers who have forced them through mandatory closings, take-out orders, and tight pandemic times.


Salazar is yet to break even at his new downtown location, but he is confident that will change soon. He’s even considering adding live music to his dining room and vegetarian options to his menu.


At Tee Jay’s, McCray and Saputra were excited to share how their love of clam chowder turned into a fundraising event.


“At first I wanted to have a Manhattan clam chowder because people really love my New England style clam chowder,” McCray said. “So we were able to do something where we made a big pot of Manhattan clam chowder, and we said, ‘Look, we’re going to give it to you. All we ask is that you put a donation of your choice in the pot. ‘ And then we donated it to the Homelessness Program through FISH. “


They were both pleasantly surprised by the number of people who tasted the chowder and donated.


“They couldn’t say no. They tried it and they liked it, ”Saputra said. They plan to add it to the menu once it gets cold outside.


Sassafras usually hosts its own fundraising and LGBTQ + pride event around this time of year, Sassabration. Fish and Watts lamented that they had to cancel it, with no time to plan. But there is always a light at the end of the tunnel for them.


“We’re going to close again at the end of July and we’re going on vacation,” Watts told an Appeal reporter with a smile. “Life is too short… and all the staff are looking forward to it. They need a break. Everyone needs a break.

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