Views from the lunch hour: Middle Tennessee restaurants are still grappling with the pandemic – The Tennessean

Restaurants throughout Middle Tennessee are still dealing with unprecedented challenges more than 18 months into the coronavirus pandemic. Changing consumer patterns, supply chain issues and a scramble for labor have led to a murky future for many restaurant owners, threatening the restaurant industry that employed 252,000 people statewide in May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Tennessean caught up with four Middle Tennessee restaurant owners to see what challenges they’re facing and how they’re adapting.

Eric Crilly, Farmland Café

Eric Crilly opened Farmland Café in 2017 in Maryland Farms, an area of Williamson County surrounded by large office parks and corporate buildings. That location used to be a strength: Before the pandemic, the diner was regularly filled with office workers on lunch breaks and businesspeople holding out of office meetings.

“When those offices are filled with employees, Farmland Cafe is ripping,” Crilly said. “I mean, we are doing really well.”

The restaurant stayed afloat through 2020 and 2021 thanks to generous support from longtime customers and assistance programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program. But even as coronavirus restrictions loosened and restaurants welcomed customers back, the all-important lunch crowd never returned. Since many companies switched to remote work models, many Williamson County workers had no reason to frequent businesses around their offices.

PROOF OF VACCINATION: Brooklyn Bowl now requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for concerts

Crilly said revenue at Farmland Café fell 56 percent without his normal lunch crowd. He closed the restaurant permanently on Sept. 8.

“Without that, the business doesn’t exist,” Crilly said. “And now it doesn’t exist.”

Steven Smithing, Mere Bulles and Green Hills Grill

Steven Smithing owns Mere Bulles, a restaurant near Farmland Café’s former location in Maryland Park, and Green Hills Grill in Davidson County. He agreed that the work-from-home movement has posed a huge problem for his restaurants.

“We’re in an office park, so we need that business lunch and that business to-go and catering and those event days to make it successful,” Smithing said. “There’s no way we could just be open at night there and be able to pay the rent.”

At Green Hills Grill in particular, to-go orders have provided a saving grace. To-go revenues there increased 400 percent during the pandemic, providing a “tremendous revenue stream” as residents cooped up in nearby Green Hills homes have sought a break from at-home meals.

It’s been trickier at Mere Bulles, which largely shares a customer base with the now-closed Farmland Café across the street.

“On the labor side, it’s difficult to recruit people,” Smithing said. “Nobody would go to that neighborhood unless you worked there or you lived there. It’s not an exit people get off on for any other reason, so recruiting people to that location is tough.”

Labor shortages have proved persistent in the hospitality industry:  In August, seven of 10 Tennessee businesses surveyed reported an “insufficient supply of appropriately trained workers, a much higher percentage than in earlier surveys,” according to the University of Tennessee Knoxville Business Leaders Survey.

“I really thought it would get going in September after everybody went back to school (and) people would just be chomping at the bit to get out there,” Smithing said. “Unfortunately, that’s when the second wave of the pandemic (and the Delta variant) pretty much gripped the country, especially here in Tennessee.”

PANCAKE PANTRY: Pancake Pantry opening second location in downtown Nashville hotel

Enas Shaker, Greek Cafe Grill

Supply chain issues have rocked every industry since the start of the pandemic. In the automotive sector, for example, a microchip shortage has led to new vehicle shortages and inflated values for what few cars are on dealer lots.

The restaurant industry hasn’t been immune, according to Enas Shaker of Greek Cafe Grill in Williamson County.

“The food costs really, really went up,” Shaker said. “We used to get (40 pounds of) chicken for like $70. Right now, it’s like $139.”

Staffing has also been an issue, Shaker said. She and her husband, co-owner Sam Mansour, regularly fill in at their three Middle Tennessee restaurants, and she responded to The Tennessean’s phone call just after working the lunch hour at the Maryland Farms location.

But the restaurants are “still making it,” she said. She credited their customers and Greek Cafe Grill’s 20-year history in the area.

“The area here, Maryland Farms, is all about the lunch,” Shaker said. “But we’re still doing decent.”

FIRST LOOK: W Nashville hotel brings lifestyle luxury — and a James Beard Award winner — to the Gulch

Randy Rayburn, Midtown Café

Midtown Cafe, nestled between Midtown Nashville’s tall office towers and Vanderbilt University, is a well-loved spot for “affordable, casual fine dining.” It’s popular for date nights as well as for businesspeople who want a formal, but not-too-buttoned-up lunchtime meeting venue.

Owner Randy Rayburn is proud of the reputation the restaurant has maintained since it opened in 1987, but the pandemic has presented a delicate question: How many changes can you make to the carefully-crafted experience while keeping the restaurant financially viable?

“We’re trying to be who we are,” Rayburn said. “We will adjust to the new normal, but we will hold onto the basics.”

Some low-selling menu items have been dropped, and the restaurant has pared down its wine list. Prices on certain items have risen due to supply shortages.

Not every change has been negative. The restaurant is now open during the day on Saturdays and Sundays, which Rayburn said has been a huge boon to sales. Delivery sales are way up. And Rayburn has raised wages for servers, which he said has helped him hold onto longtime staffers.

“People that don’t have enough staff, it’s because they’re not paying enough or they’re not good to their people,” Rayburn said. “Take care of your staff. The staff will take care of your customers.

Cole Villena covers business at The Tennessean, part of the USA Today Network — Tennessee. Reach Cole at cvillena@tennessean.com or 615-925-0493. Follow Cole on Twitter at @ColeVillena and on Instagram at @CVinTennessee.

Source