Sunday, June 26, 2022

Surcharges and increased prices help some businesses deal with the aftereffects of Covid-19

Trolly Stop has signs posted to inform customers of the temporary surcharge they've added to make up from increase costs on products from Covid-19. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Trolly Stop has signs posted to inform customers of the temporary surcharge they’ve added to make up from increase costs on products from Covid-19. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

WILMINGTON — Businesses across Wilmington are adapting and finding ways to recoup losses from Covid-19. Some are raising prices overall, others are implementing surcharges to counteract increased overhead and decreased sales.

Owners Rich and Kathy Walsh of Trolly Stop in Wilmington started charging a 12% Covid-19 surcharge in July and dropped it to 8% last month. The surcharge is highlighted on every receipt and signs are posted in the store to inform customers. 

“I’ve only had 1% of people complain,” Rich said. “Most have been understanding and sympathetic; I’ve been trying to keep the public very aware of rising costs.” 

Since March, Rich has seen the bottom line balloon on everyday costs of supplies, like condiments, paper towels and cup holders—not to mention now-required personal protection equipment (PPE), like masks, hand sanitizer and gloves.

Gloves that used to be $50 for 1,000 are now $175, thanks to shortages. 

“Ketchup packets should be gold,” Rich added. “That’s what they’re worth. Manufacturers can’t make them fast enough because all restaurants need them now that they’ve taken condiments off the tables. The supply chain is broken.”

The prices of food are scattered at every turn. After slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants closed from novel coronavirus, beef, poultry and dairy went up. In fact, by May food inflation hit 4%—the most it has in more than eight years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. 

“It’s really hard to keep up with these costs when you’re a small restaurant that has a 45-year brand of serving inexpensive, quality food, quickly,” he said. 

Rich Walsh restocks tables with paper towels, a-hard-to-get item for restaurants during Covid-19. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

The Walshes bought the Fountain Drive location five years ago. Under their lead, Trolly Stop has kept its signature hot dogs and homemade toppings popular among locals. Yet, the couple introduced numerous daily specials, and added burgers, sliders, cheesesteaks, chicken sandwiches, grilled cheeses, and loaded fries and tots, which has evolved its customer base and increased sales.

The restaurant operated curbside, takeout and delivery through the pandemic. Still, the store itself isn’t the driving force of revenue, according to Rich. The catering side accounts for 35% of business. When Covid-19 hit, all private and public caterings vanished. 

“2019 was a banner year,” Rich said. “We were really busy. Last August we did more than 80 caterings; this August we did 18.”

Freida Brady, general manager for the city-owned Wilmington Convention Center, can commiserate. Brady confirmed the venue lost 90 bookings to the tune of $3 million because of the pandemic. Normally, it hosts 127 events a year; only a handful of major conventions rescheduled over the next few years.

“All our contract cancellations since Covid-19 are covered under an act-of-God clause,” Brady said, noting the center hasn’t charged any fees for cancelled events. But, as the sales managers slowly book into the new year, Brady can’t guarantee the policy won’t change. 

“Beyond January 2021, we just don’t know where or if we’ll be under Covid-19 restrictions,” she noted. 

Brady also can’t answer whether there will be future Covid surcharges on food, especially when the center gains back events that need catering services for plated banquets, balls and weddings. “Who knows what the costs of beef or seafood will be then?” she questioned.

Though Trolly Stop and the convention center never closed during Covid-19, Caparelli & Mellis Family Denistry did shutter March 18 through June 1. During the downtime, Dr. Kim Caparelli decided to improve infrastructure to help patients feel less vulnerable while having dental work done in the face of a pandemic.

She upgraded the HVAC with an ionized filtration system, installed high-powered exhaust fans, added multiple HEPA air filters, purchased fogging equipment to sterilize between and after patients, and stocked up on N95 masks, water repellent gowns, face shields, and head coverings. 

“We also implemented electronic forms,” Dr. Caparelli explained, “which included the purchase of the software and multiple iPads.”

Once the office reopened in June, a $10 PPE charge was added to every patient’s bill. Dr. Caparelli ended the charge in September. 

“We chose not to permanently raise our fees, but to temporarily charge the extra fee to help cover expenses,” she said, “until we could get back up and running after being shut down for two-and-a-half months.” 

Trolly Stop manager Kerri Walker (left) and owner Kathy Walsh count cash from the register at the Fountain Drive store Wednesday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

The Walshes are phasing out Trolly Stop’s surcharges in coming weeks. They decided to increase all food prices by 50 cents beginning in November, except for a plain hot dog that will go down 10 cents in price.

“At first, I didn’t want to raise my prices and decided I would absorb it,” Rich said. “But the reality is, my overhead went from $1,300 a day to $1,600 a day. My store is only generating $1,100 a day right now, and caterings are just starting to come back. So I’m losing $300 to $400 a day.”

Raising prices also means incurring more upfront costs, namely $2,500 to make permanent changes on their old-fashioned board menus and in-store paper menus. 

While the monetary loss is stressful, running the restaurant on a shoestring staff has provided another level of constriction, forcing them to close earlier than normal. The Walshes have taken only a few Sundays off since March, and have had a small rotary of employees during these precarious times.

At the convention center, half of the staff were laid off. Whereas 46 were running it before, today only 13 are helping maintain the building for city, county and planning board meetings it continues to host. The center also has booked some hybrid events, with few in-person attendees and Zoom attendees.

“We all are pitching in, resetting rooms, handling housekeeping, helping out everywhere,” Brady listed. 

“We are burnt out,” Rich stated. “We just don’t know when this will settle out—and we cannot absorb a $300-a-day loss or the Trolly Stop doors will be closed in 20 days after being here 45 years. I can survive the virus, but I can’t survive the costs of everything.” 

Trolly Stop co-owner Kathy Walsh heads into the kitchen at the Fountain Drive location. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Trolly Stop co-owner Rich Walsh relaxes in a booth at the Fountain Drive location. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Trolly Stop manager Kerri Walker counts cash from the register toward the end of her shift Wednesday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Send tips and ideas to Shea Carver at shea@localdailymedia.com

Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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