NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Carolina Beach Road has one less restaurant serving the south side of the county. Niche Kitchen and Bar announced on its answering machine and on a note posted to the business’ doors that it’s closing after 11 years in business.
The note points to the government’s unemployment benefits as the cause of its closure: “Covid-19 was tough enough, but our government’s unemployment policies have created an environment that has made it impossible for us to hire the staff that is necessary to continue operating this business.”
The aftereffects of Covid-19 has led to staff shortages in multiple industries, including the hospitality and restaurant sectors. Many restaurants have had to remodel their pay structure and benefits in order to draw in more interest for potential employees, as the North Carolina Department of Security Commission pays up to $350 a week in unemployment benefits for up to 20 weeks.
Since March 2020, almost $1.4 million has been paid additionally through Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) claims, a program that started during Covid to help the 13.5% of the state population that lost jobs in April and May 2020 because of the pandemic. FPUC continues to pay out an additional $300 a week — down from $600 a week through summer 2020 — on top of state unemployment benefits.
Currently, 25 states have ended additional federal payments through their employment divisions. In North Carolina, the Republican-sponsored Senate Bill 116 aims to stop it as well, in an effort to get more of the labor force back to work.
During the pandemic, Niche received both first- and second-draw paycheck protection loans totaling $149,194, as distributed to The Coastal Roaster LLC, a limited-service restaurant. The SBA shows The Coastal Roaster’s 2019 payroll expenses were estimated at $329,731.
As part of the first loan application, the company noted it retained 13 jobs for an average annual pay of $29,723 per employee. Its second application stated 21 jobs were retained, with an estimated annual pay of $15,701 per employee.
The first loan of $80,500 was paid or forgiven in full. The second loan of $68,694 is marked “ongoing,” meaning it “has been disbursed by the lender and has not yet been fully repaid or forgiven,” according to the SBA.
Also amid shutdowns and restrictions, Niche shifted its operations to take-out and curbside pickup, including affordable family meals to appeal to diners in a pinch. It adjusted further during normally busy holiday hours to offer Thanksgiving dinner as pickup.
The restaurant reopened as allowed under capacity limitations and benefitted from its outdoor patio to increase its customer footprint before fully reopening as more Covid-19 mandates lifted.
On the restaurant’s Facebook page at the end of April, owners Earl and Donna Losey first announced Niche was short on staff and revised operations as such. Niche dropped lunch hours and began opening Tuesday through Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch on Apr. 27.
“It’s our hope that this will be a temporary situation and that we will be able to resume normal operations in the very near future. We apologize to all our loyal customers for the inconvenience,” the owners wrote.
By mid-May Niche dropped Sunday brunch, too, with another round of “temporary hours” put in place.
Owner Earl Losey expressed gratitude to the Niche customers on the restaurant’s recorded message: “With much regret Niche Kitchen and Bar has closed its doors to all our loyal customers. We thank you for supporting our restaurant over the years.”
Port City Daily reached out to the Loseys about Niche closing but didn’t hear back for comment. The story will be updated as more information becomes available.
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