Surging COVID-19 cases, continued staffing shortages, and increasing food costs are causing headaches for popular Dothan restaurants.
The current personnel status has some local businesses struggling just to keep their doors open, while others are experiencing lesser degrees of strain as the nation pauses for Labor Day weekend.
Ray’s Restaurant on South Oates Street has been a community gathering spot for breakfast and lunch since 1969, even after changing ownership in the last decade.
It hasn’t been able to fill an open dishwasher position since spring, and the restaurant’s owner has had to deal with a seemingly never-ending hiring process where people are interviewed, hired, and never show up for work or leave shortly after starting.
“It’s putting a lot of stress on the ones who are working,” Christi Peterson, owner of Ray’s Restaurant, said on Thursday immediately after Ray’s dining room closed for the day. “People don’t know what we have to go through on a day-to-day.”
The last week or so has been especially stressful for the restaurant as two waitresses were out for COVID-19 related reasons even with enhanced health safety measures at the diner. Staff that do come to work are often scheduled double shifts.
“We have to stick our dining room closed sign out just so we can catch up,” Peterson said, adding that the restaurant has also had to close on regularly open days just so the staff can get a break. “Most of the customers here at Ray’s have been very understanding.”
Additionally, restaurant owners are dealing with increased food costs and ingredient shortages also caused by labor shortages.
Ingredients for most of Ray’s menu items have gone up by 30-50%, putting a financial strain on the business. Peterson said she has tried changing menu prices, but then food costs rise again.
“We’ve got to go ahead and do something or we’re not going to be able to stay afloat,” Peterson said.
Locally famous for its southern eats and Top Chef-winning owner, KBC in downtown Dothan has had some trouble finding people who will show up to work. However, general manager Nicki Knight said overall its setbacks have not been as severe as other eateries.
“It hasn’t really had a significant impact on us,” Knight said. “Our business is pretty consistent and our managers are trained to fill in. We have had to run a couple of dinner services with a limited menu.”
Parker Armstrong, owner of David’s Catfish House, has had been riding the wave created by the COVID-19 pandemic shortly after opening in December 2019.
“We’ve gotten this far,” Armstrong said.
The seafood restaurant kept its doors open with Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Now, Armstrong said the restaurant is pretty well staffed.
However, as the Delta Variant maintains a high transmission rate in the community, staff keep getting COVID-19 and are sent home, so David’s could use more workers.
Blue Plate Restaurant, a popular southern-style diner with two Dothan locations, said meeting challenges has been “kind of a roller coaster ride.”
“One week we’re fully staffed and next week we’re shorthanded because of COVID and exposure,” Brittney Robinette, Blue Plate general manager, said on Friday. “Then there’s food cost increases and shortages. Prices are starting to increase daily. There’s not much we can do about that.”
While grappling with how to maintain the current price point of its menu items with rising food costs, Robinette said the Blue Plate decided to close a day at each restaurant to give its workers a well-deserved break.
“We don’t know what we’re going to get hit with the next day,” Robinette said. “We’re doing the best we can.”
If the restaurant is short-staffed, sections have to be closed off and staff may be rotated to a different location to meet the needs of its customers.
After riding these challenges for over a year, Robinette said it’s important to take it day-by-day even if you don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.
“We’re going to find our own light,” she said. “We’ve just got to keep a smile on our faces and just know that the good outweighs the bad.”
Sable Riley is a Dothan Eagle staff writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 334.712.7915. Support her work and that of other Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at dothaneagle.com.