WILMINGTON –– Where are the sweet potato fries?
It’s a question servers at Copper Penny are hearing often from customers scanning the menu. Similar thoughts ring out about wraps … or the steak and bacon sandwich … or breaded chicken wings.
As the pandemic subsides and life returns to “normal,” diners are back, ready to socialize over cold beers to cheers to no more masks. But it may not be the exact experience as before.
Eateries and bars –– two of the businesses arguably most impacted by Covid-19 restrictions –– are still feeling detrimental effects. Scaling down the menu is just one of the tough calls restaurant owners are making, or continuing to make, in order to adapt to what the pandemic has thrown their way.
Despite its dedicated fan base, Copper Penny is no exception. The staple of downtown Wilmington has always been bustling, with patrons waiting for a table in the alleys beside the dark blue building that holds Guy Fieri-approved onion rings and chicken sandwiches.
Those waits are longer these days as the restaurant operates with a staff half its normal size. After being temporarily let go in March 2020, former workers found reasons not to come back. Many sought less-demanding careers or learned to stretch out government benefits.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced last week he was tightening unemployment guidelines by bringing back work-search requirements in an effort to replenish the labor force.
In the meantime, Copper Penny is working with altered operations in hopes that any sign of a labor shortage is unbeknown to customers.
“It’s not an ideal situation,” general manager Andrew DeVoid said. “You have to continue to evolve and adapt, otherwise no one will be here, unfortunately.”
On St. Patrick’s Day 2020, Copper Penny shifted to exclusively takeout at the governor’s orders. It was the start of the lockdowns, back when health officials were beginning to grasp how contagious and deadly the virus is while there were just 69 known cases of Covid-19 in North Carolina. On Thursday state health officials tallied the one millionth case.
Servers were furloughed and lived off unemployment benefits for months. Copper Penny kept just six people from its 70-person staff in March and April. The restaurant remained open, offering carry-out to customers. It even built a permanent to-go station near the entryway of the restaurant while the dining area was closed.
Other well-known, landmark establishments didn’t make it. South College Sandwich & Deli and Dock Street Oyster Bar were two beloved businesses to shutter from Covid-19 financial strains.
The loss of any business, especially downtown, is a consequence to all, DeVoid said. He called restaurants the “backbone of foot traffic,” attracting patrons to the vicinity where they may also browse boutiques or sip in coffee shops.
“It’s very important that the restaurant industry is thriving because we need to bring tourists and the community downtown to keep Wilmington attractive,” DeVoid said.
He added that’s why it’s important to adapt, continuously, Copper Penny is continuing to offer a reduced menu, as it has done throughout the pandemic. DeVoid altered its selection multiple times, a direct effect of distribution troubles and reduced labor.
“We had to take off some things that were fan favorites, but they were time-consuming. They were things that slowed us down a little bit,” DeVoid said. “We needed to stay efficient, and be able to operate with less bodies.”
Outside of the pandemic, Copper Penny periodically studies what’s selling the most and the least. That data, weighed with the cost of the item and production times, informs decisions about what stays on and off the menu.
“You might not believe that we took it off the menu, but you might not be aware that we sell very few of those,” DeVoid said. “From our standpoint, if it’s not moving, we need to take it off. We need to replace it with something that will do better, or we need to just hone in on the things that we do best.”
In the last three months, Copper Penny and other restaurants discovered a new obstacle when vaccinated diners returned and workers didn’t.
Copper Penny hired a few hostesses and servers in the past months, but it’s barely filled any positions for back-of-house. For restaurants, the hiring crisis is dragging out the ramifications of the pandemic and slowing down the financial recovery. Demand is outweighing the supply.
To keep up, Copper Penny reduced operations from seven days a week to six. Since Easter weekend, it closed on Sundays to guarantee workers a day off and mitigate burnout.
“We spread our strengths out over the course of six days, rather than filling seven all the time and being thin and not meeting our set levels of satisfaction when it comes to output in work, food qualities and things like that,” DeVoid said.
Copper Penny removed extra tables from its dining room, despite capacity limits on restaurants lifting. The reduction in seating has contributed to even longer wait times at the popular establishment, sometimes over an hour long. But Copper Penny aims to get food out in 15 to 20 minutes once the diners are at their table.
“You might wait a long time to be seated. Once you’re sat, we’re gonna take care of you quickly,” DeVoid said. “You’re not going to have to suffer the shortages.”
Making necessary decisions to continue running efficiently is key, DeVoid said. He’s hoping other businesses do so too.
“We’re not alone in this,” DeVoid said. “We understand that every business is feeling this effect. It’s important for those businesses to make critical decisions to survive.”
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