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‘Everybody is going through the same thing’: Restaurants face reopening challenges

Labor shortages, soaring food prices, and back rent are all weighing on the industry even as diners flock back

A group shared lunch at Cambridge’s Veggie Galaxy, where things are so busy they’ve cut back on hours.
A group shared lunch at Cambridge’s Veggie Galaxy, where things are so busy they’ve cut back on hours.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Veggie Galaxy in Central Square seems to be back in full swing during Sunday brunch.

Customers are lining up to order gooey cinnamon rolls, stacks of pancakes, and tempeh bacon from the restaurant’s recently reopened dining room, with crowds of veggie fans sprawling out onto the expanded patio on Massachusetts Avenue.

Behind the scenes though, it’s a different story, one that reached a tipping point two weeks ago when Veggie Galaxy didn’t have enough cooks. Orders began piling up. People kept coming in. That’s when general manager Chris Robins made the decision to “shut it all down,” turning off Veggie Galaxy’s delivery service and deciding to close for Sunday dinner and all day Monday to give his staff a break.

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Friends Katrina Ross, Maria Dekhtyar-Miller, David Miller, and Andrew Curreri sat on the patio at Veggie Galaxy on Friday.
Friends Katrina Ross, Maria Dekhtyar-Miller, David Miller, and Andrew Curreri sat on the patio at Veggie Galaxy on Friday.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“It reaches a point where if you are that busy, and that stressed, it doesn’t matter how much you attempt to fake it,” he said. “You can’t fake nice when your hair’s on fire.”

Restaurateurs have spent more than a year waiting to get to this moment, when they could finally welcome guests at full capacity with no restrictions. But now that the opportunity is here, they’re facing a wave of new challenges.

They’re scrambling to find help, hosting on-the-spot hiring sessions, and pleading on social media for staff. They’re raising wages even as costs for ingredients and other goods spike due to global supply chain disruptions. There are subtle ironies, too: After months of subsisting on takeout orders, they’re now turning them away. And after longing to linger with guests, they’re still relying on technology just to expedite sales.

And what keeps many awake at night is the looming threat of having to pay off back rent and other debts that accrued during the long months of the pandemic. After all, said Ayr Muir, owner of local fast-casual chain Clover, even with diners coming back, restaurateurs still don’t know when — of even if — revenue will rebound to 2019 levels.

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“We may be at the middle of the storm, not the end of it. I think the majority of closings caused by COVID have yet to happen,” Muir said. “People are more afraid now than when I talked to them a year ago.”

One huge issue is hiring. Competition for workers in the hospitality industry was already a crisis before COVID. But getting back up to prepandemic staffing levels is proving to be a costly investment at a moment when funds are already scarce.

Kane’s Donuts raised hourly wages from $13 to as high as $18, said owner Paul Delios, in order to fend off “a significant amount of poaching” from competitors. Doughnut prices have risen, too, as the cost to make one of Kane’s maple bacon specials has doubled: A 15-pound case of bacon that used to be $60 now costs $127.

Clover raised its wages, with tips, to about $21 an hour and hosted a pop-up job fair to hire workers on the spot on Thursday, hoping to fill 150 positions at three new restaurants opening in the coming months. Douglass Williams, of MIDA, which has locations in the South End and Newton, said he’s been looking to hire — and train — high school students, nurses, anyone willing to learn the industry.

“We’re trying to capture them and bring them into our culture,” he said.

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Kevin Lawton-Smyth, the general manager at Clover, sent Paul Stark home with some of the food from Clover after promising him a  position at a soon-to-be-opened restaurant.
Kevin Lawton-Smyth, the general manager at Clover, sent Paul Stark home with some of the food from Clover after promising him a position at a soon-to-be-opened restaurant.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Will Gilson, chef and owner of Puritan & Company, Cafe Beatrice, and the Lexington, has resorted to humor. On Instagram this week, he said he was looking for a sous chef, a pastry chef, and a “personal spiritual advisor.” He was shocked at how many people reached out about the latter. It was a joke, he said, but those posts bring in 25 percent more responses about actual jobs.

At Veggie Galaxy, owner Adam Penn said the diner has only half its typical 60-person staff, which means he can’t open all the tables in the dining room. Without enough waitstaff, patrons are placing orders by scanning a QR code on their phones.

“We are kind of caught in a limbo where some [servers] don’t want to come back until we are full-service, but we need them to come back before we do that,” he said. “In terms of kitchen staff ... we have had a couple of cooks who left because they could make more somewhere else.”

Alex Aviles delivered milkshakes during the lunch rush on Friday afternoon at Veggie Galaxy.
Alex Aviles delivered milkshakes during the lunch rush on Friday afternoon at Veggie Galaxy.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

In some cases, restaurants are doing even more business than in prepandemic days, with extended outdoor dining privileges that allow them to put tables on streets and sidewalks.

Sam Sosnitsky, for instance, was able to double the capacity of Ma Maison, her 35-seat restaurant in Beacon Hill, by adding patios on both Cambridge and Anderson streets. She’s still having trouble keeping up with demand.

“I refuse people every day,” she said. “They call it the repeat of the ‘Roaring 20s,’ and I never thought we would experience this, but it has been absolutely insane.”

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Then there’s the cost, and availability, of ingredients, as supply chains struggle to keep up with surging demand.

On Thursday, Robins was drawing up a plan to find bread for Veggie Galaxy’s seitan gyro sandwich; the hardest product to source these days, he said, is paper napkins. Muir had a shipment of olive oil tied up in international waters for weeks. Sosnitsky is just glad there’s a Whole Foods across the street, where she regularly runs to buy “whatever we are missing.”

And sometimes the labor and supply shortages combine, like when Gilson couldn’t get beer for more than a week because there weren’t enough drivers to drop it off.

All these circumstances together, operators say, is making it harder than ever to run a restaurant, right at the moment when customers are clamoring to come back. To manage the onslaught, some restaurants have stopped offering takeout or reduced their hours. But that’s putting them at odds with loyal customers who supported them through the darkest moments.

Rosa Martinez wrote personalized notes on takeout bags while working at Veggie Galaxy on Friday afternoon. Owner Adam Penn isn't sure how the diner will keep up with online orders with both indoor and outdoor dining.
Rosa Martinez wrote personalized notes on takeout bags while working at Veggie Galaxy on Friday afternoon. Owner Adam Penn isn't sure how the diner will keep up with online orders with both indoor and outdoor dining. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

At the height of the pandemic, Stuart Schnitt and his wife were placing takeout orders four or five nights a week, in an effort to keep their favorite South End eateries afloat. But about a month ago, when the couple called in to place their regular orders at a half-dozen spots, they kept getting turned down. There just wasn’t enough staff.

“We recognize that they make more money on people dining in than taking out. But certainly as people who really tried to go out of their way to support these restaurants during the pandemic, we sort of felt a bit turned away,” Schnitt said. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘You guys helped us during the worst time, but we have to do what’s best for us.’ I understand it. I just wonder how temporary this is going to be.”

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Penn said he worries the reopening hiccups could stain Veggie Galaxy’s reputation among some customers. He said every setback, from closing early to food taking longer than usual to reach a table makes him “wonder how long they’re going to stick with us.”

His general manager, Robins, agrees. “We were driving ourselves insane, pushing the kitchen too hard, and we don’t have enough staff.” The only saving grace, he said, is “everybody is going through the same thing.”


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.