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Restaurants Grasping at Straws

Restaurants Grasping at Straws

“We’re just trying to survive through the pandemic, want to give everyone who’s here jobs, and be here for the community, too.” Those are the words of Nick, a restaurant manager at Noble’s Kitchen and Beer Hall in East Nashville. Survival is the goal for this local watering hole. Burgers, brisket, chicken wings, meatloaf, and fries. With a menu that could make almost any Southerner feel at home and an impressive 60 beers on tap, it sounds like the perfect hang for football season. But what’s really going on behind the scenes to keep the doors of an average Tennessee restaurant open?

We can start by looking at the hiring situation. Tennessee continues to see a decrease in unemployment rates, but things aren’t quite as cut and dry in the service industry. “25% of our industry in Nashville, when the pandemic hit, moved back home. They moved out of Nashville, so when we re-opened we were short 25% of the staff already.” Nick explains. He then goes on to give us a picture of the current state of hiring, “Over the last 4 months it’s been really, really hard to hire front of house, back of house, [and] support staff.”

Though there may be multiple reasons for Nick’s difficulty filling positions, he can only speculate. “I don’t know if it’s fear of the pandemic, still, [for] some people, [if] people were getting unemployment [for] so long they have some leftover, [or] not having to pay rent.” Regardless of the reasons, Nick has been dealing with no-shows for interviews, people lying on applications, and a general lack of experience as he tries to keep the doors open at his local eatery.

Beyond hiring, supply chain interruptions have also created new obstacles for both the restaurant and bar at Noble’s. Nick has had to tap into his creative problem-solving skills to manage the curveballs the pandemic has thrown his way. We can start by looking at a graph of price increases the restaurant has had to face.

Multiple factors, including interruptions in supply chains, new demand for certain materials, new allocations of certain materials, and business promises made by supply companies that prevent the ability to order certain supplies, have taken their toll on prices and week-to-week commerce. Nick shares, “So, for food suppliers - distributors - we used to only have two. One we get produce from and somebody we get everything else from. The way we sit today, we now have six just to be able to keep our [doors open].”

Nick explains, “If we can make a little bit of money on the food or break even on certain items, like wings, we’re okay with that because hopefully, that person that’s eating those items are also drinking liquor or beer… we’ll make our profit off of that, or pay our electric, or our labor, or whatever it is off of that.” He goes on to summarize, what seems to be, an increasingly popular plan among middle-class businesses trying to bounce back post-pandemic, “Let’s just survive.”

Noble’s survival strategy has leaned heavily on their alcohol sales, but that’s also posed new problems for the beer hall. “There’s been supply issues with that.” states Nick. He goes on to list off a few factors such as glass shortages, a delay in the shipment of cargo containers, and corn-based liquor shortages… just to name a few.

Noble’s day-to-day reality consists of unpredictability and inconsistency. Not quite the recipe they would willingly put on the menu, but Nick explains that relationships, hard work, and a ‘never say die’ attitude seem to be what’s keeping them afloat. “Some of the supplier reps have just known some of us for the past ten years  - being in the business - so, a little bit of new and old relationships,” says Nick. He continues, “It depends on what the future’s going to look like. We’re staring down, apparently, the Delta variant that’s coming on strong. You see other cities shutting down and taking way more precautions. It could hurt us, or it could help us.” Nick explains that as circumstances change and the demand shifts, suppliers are relying on healthy, dynamic business relationships with restaurants like Noble’s. “They’re looking for business like we are.”

As the economy continues to reopen, Americans are becoming more aware of the struggles some of their favorite businesses and venues are facing. What is here today can be gone tomorrow. When asked about the possibility of Noble’s shutting down, Nick answered in a way we secretly hope every single one of our favorite haunts will echo. With true, American grit he replied, “We’re planning on staying open unless they literally tell us to shut it down.”