Sonoma County restaurants still struggling in 2021
Fourth Street Social was supposed to be restaurateur Melissa Matteson's dream project.
She got the keys to the small downtown Santa Rosa lounge and cafe in February 2020, documenting the weeks of redecorating and grand-opening preparations on Instagram. Tables were set, bottles of wine bubbly purchased, and the menu prepped for its grand opening on St. Patrick's Day on March 17.
On March 18, Sonoma County residents were ordered to shelter in place and nothing has gone according to Matteson’s carefully laid plans since.
"Making a to-go menu was our grand opening in 2020," said Matteson, "and we still haven't gotten a real opening."
Nineteen months into the pandemic, many Sonoma County's restaurateurs say 2021 has been far worse than 2020, and the future looks even grimmer.
That may come as a surprise to diners who flocked back to restaurants in droves in the first half of 2021, hoping to support the hard-hit industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, food and beverage sales in the restaurant industry are projected to reach $789 billion in 2021, up nearly 20 percent since 2020.
But it's been a mixed blessing as restaurants struggle to meet demand.
Ongoing food shortages and supply issues have led to skyrocketing prices on everything from meat and vegetables to packaging and paper products. Labor shortages have resulted in restaurants closing, despite unprecedented demand from restaurant-goers.
Paycheck protection loans and the U.S. Small Business Administration's $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization funds are tapped out and small restaurant owners are running on mental and emotional fumes as the traditional sit-down restaurant model crumbles.
"We have our heads about water-ish," said Matteson. She and one server are handling the 35-person restaurant with a single chef doing all the cooking.
"I'm the server, host, bartender, janitor and everything else," she said.
People applying for jobs at the restaurant have often never worked in a restaurant before, Matteson added, saying she lacks the time or energy to train them.
"We're a new restaurant, and it's my reputation on the line, and if we drop the ball, well, you never get that customer back," she said.
Matteson has been lucky in one sense, however. Restaurants rarely make a profit the first year, and she planned for that.
"I'm not doing this for the money. I'm doing it for the passion," she said.
That doesn't mean she can afford to wait around for things to get better. Instead, she's doing everything to keep the doors open, including renting out the space for small private parties and hosting a Halloween prix fixe dinner.
"This is what we're working with," she said. "We're just getting creative."
‘I can’t afford to quit’
Lucas and Karen Martin of Sebastopol's K & L Bistro put their hearts and souls into their small restaurant for 20 years. In the early days, the couple put their son's crib in the kitchen as Karen worked the line and Lucas served customers. Over the years, they added staff, grew the business and looked forward to retirement, or at least not working brutal night and weekend hours any longer, Lucas said.
Instead, they're working more hours than ever before and barely treading water.
Karen is the lone cook, while Lucas does pretty much everything else, including the dishes. They've hired a runner and a bartender to help, but if anyone calls in sick or the couple has to take a few days off, as they did in late August to drive their son to college, the restaurant closes.
There's no other option, said Lucas Martin.
"There's just no one to run the restaurant. We used to have a ton of employees, probably more than we needed. Now, there are two," he said.
It's not for lack of trying to find staff. Martin has posted job openings for months without response and recently gave up altogether. With nearly 1.75 million unfilled restaurant jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are too few applicants for the often low-paying, high-stress positions. After being laid off in 2020, many restaurant workers have changed careers or gone back to school.
"A lot of people get stuck in the restaurant business. The tips are really good, and when you're earning a few hundred dollars a night...it can become a tender trap. Some of our best people went back to school to get a degree. One got their real estate license," Martin said.
"The pandemic forced people to re-evaluate."