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Restaurants are ‘sucking wind’ but fighting back to reopen amid a worker shortage

View of the Prohibition Taproom in Philadelphia. Owner Michael Pasquarello, who owns two other establishments in the city, is optimistic about the future despite issues that plague the industry.

Source: Google Earth

Like many in his field, restaurateur Michael Pasquarello is grateful to have survived the damage the pandemic did to his business and is now looking forward to something that resembles normal.

He knows it won’t be easy.

“We all have come to appreciate being able to welcome guests back and we’re super grateful to be hosting again,” Pasquarello said recently amid the usual din that greets a day shuffling family and business responsibilities. “But it’s a different world.”

For folks like Pasquarello and his wife, Jeniphur — who run three restaurants in the Philadelphia area and are opening another shortly — the world has changed dramatically from the one they knew prior to March 2020.

The burdens the hospitality industry have faced eclipsed those from probably any other in the country except for education. Proprietors faced a revolving door of closures, space restrictions, sanitation regulations and a lingering air of uncertainty about what’s next.

Some survived thanks to government assistance, takeout business and the luck of the draw, but many didn’t. On top of that, they’re now faced with a crippling worker shortage as well as regulatory and legislative obstacles.

That burden is on a sector whose success at regaining its footing is integral to the path of the U.S. post-Covid recovery.

‘A mixed bag of tricks’

The Pasquarellos were able to get through the crisis by using the unique assets of each business to adapt.

Café Lift provides brunch-type foods ideal for takeout. The Kensington Quarters has a large outdoor space at the rear to accommodate diners when indoor seating was prohibited. The Prohibition Taproom couldn’t have bar seating but became a “streetery” when the city allowed businesses to use parking spaces for dining.

“Like everyone else, we didn’t make money. But it felt good to open a business,” Pasquarello said. “So it’s been a mixed bag of tricks. Each place had to figure a different way to deal with this.”

Many such businesses weren’t as fortunate.

More than 110,000 bars and restaurants shut their doors for good in 2020, according to the National Restaurant Association. In most states, harsh lockdown measures imposed to combat Covid-19 forced businesses that already operated at low margins to shut completely, then reopen with mostly limited capacity.

But as vaccinations provide hope in the pandemic fight, the fortunes may start turning for hospitality focused businesses.

“I’m super optimistic that we will get back to where we were,” Pasquarello said.

Not everyone is as convinced.

Dealing with a labor shortage

In other parts of the country, the picture isn’t quite as clear, and it’s not just about reopening under Covid-era conditions.

Carlos Gazitua is CEO of Sergio’s Family Restaurants, a group of Cuban eateries in Florida.

Gazitua is preparing for a summer he anticipates as potentially record-breaking in terms of demand but fears a significant problem on the other end – supply, as in getting enough labor to meet all the customers hungry to get back