Friday, May 20, 2022

From bad reviews to vendor shortages, Wilmington-area restaurant owner talks life during Covid-19

Chef Josh Petty’s Porters Neck area eatery Cast Iron Kitchen will serve up a progressive take on Southern breakfast fare, as well as lunch and dinner creations. (Port City Daily/File)

WILMINGTON — Dealing with the new normal when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic is challenging for everyone. For small business owners, especially restauranteurs, difficult decisions are being made across the region as cases of Covid-19 continue to rise and more businesses are closing their doors yet again.

The pandemic itself has become a highly politicized topic and many people have been opposed to any sort of government regulation — even the suggestion of wearing a mask to help slow the spread of the virus draws ire from some. Yet, when Governor Roy Cooper announced the mask mandate for North Carolina, it wasn’t residents who had to worry about getting fines or citations for not wearing a mask — instead, it is the small (and large) business owners themselves that will face the consequences.

“The brunt of the new mandate’s enforcement actually falls on business owners and management rather than law enforcement. In fact, Executive Order 147, a three-week extension of phase two, specifically bans law enforcement from criminally enforcing the new face-covering requirement against individual customers, workers, or patrons,” according to previous reporting from Port City Daily.

For Cast Iron Kitchen owner Josh Petty, it has been a struggle to decide how to proceed. As a recipient of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, Petty reopened and rehired his staff. Now, he is being forced to cut back services once again.

“We were closed for the two months and we got our PPP money … We had to try and spend all that money in eight weeks so we hired all our staff back and just doing to-go [orders],” he said.

Tensions on the rise

For Petty, one of the things he wishes customers would remember is the fact that we are all in this together. While it is understandable that people might have more stress than normal, restaurant owners are keeping their doors open not only to ensure their staff has a paycheck but to provide meals for customers.

“I have a business for myself, but ultimately I have this so other people can have a livelihood. We finally had to make a tough decision and put everybody back except for four of us,” he said.

For Cast Iron Kitchen, Petty said he has only been able to make about half the revenue that he was this time last year — while having to increase expenses for things like extra gloves and sanitizer and disinfectant.

Things are also going to take longer when things like limited staff and extra sanitation efforts, he said.

“Yes the guest might get neglected for a little bit but we have to do that to ensure our safety as well as theirs — the thing is — be patient. We’re taking the necessary precautions, we don’t like wearing the masks and it is hotter than all get out in the kitchen,” he said.

Then there are the bad review and complaints, of course guests who are unsatisfied with their experience have the right to leave a review, however, speaking with staff or the owner might help fix any concerns. For example, some items are out of stock from vendors right now — something he has zero control over — so menu items might be slightly different than what people are used to.

Ultimately, the stress of keeping the business open while only able to operate at 50% capacity and worrying about spreading the virus led Petty to close down indoor seating again.

It was a hard choice to make but last week he and his wife decided it was time to close back down for dine-in services — and he isn’t alone. Restaurants around the region have taken it upon themselves to shut back down or scaled back services (like curbside and to-go only).

And while being able to operate at 50% capacity is much better than what bars are currently allowed to do — that is, nothing — businesses are still hurting.

If we keep going on the model of 50% with a full staff, I’ll have to close my doors within the next three months. PPP money is going to run out, I am not bringing in enough revenue to break even with having 50% guests and a full staff. We decided to go back, like a lot of other places…” Petty said.

Another fear for restaurants is being a location associated with the virus, and so far, Petty has been lucky although there have been some close calls with guests who have been infected. Customers around the country have been seen pushing back against staff members who ask them to wear a mask and Petty said he wishes people would understand that it is not the restaurant’s or store’s requirement, they are simply enforcing rules put in place by the government.

“It’s not our decision, we do make that call but I am not going to tell somebody no. My thing is that if you don’t have a mask you can sit outside,” Petty said.

As far as a light at the end of the tunnel, Petty said he does not think restaurants will be returning to ‘normal’ anytime soon.

“I don’t see restaurants having full capacity and I think it would be a stupid idea to go back to full capacity before there is a treatment or vaccine,” he said. “There are a lot of hard decisions to make but ultimately we are trying to keep our staff, our families, and the community safe.”

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