For nearly two years, restaurants, breweries and bars in Anchorage have weathered the surge after the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, as the more contagious omicron variant shatters the state’s previous virus case count records, the industry is once again facing a wave of impacts.
One of the biggest challenges: staying on the job during an ongoing worker shortage as workers fall ill with the virus. To alleviate this problem, some restaurants and bars in Anchorage are taking steps such as reducing hours or operating fewer days of the week. Others were forced to close temporarily after workers fell ill.
Restaurateur Jack Lewis co-owns and operates several local restaurants, including FireTap Alehouse in South Anchorage, Peanut Farm near the Old Seward Highway, Krispy Kreme in Northeast Anchorage, Burger-Fi in Midtown, and McGinley’s Pub downtown, which is remained closed since the beginning of the pandemic.
Lewis temporarily closed FireTap for two days last week after a worker tested positive for COVID-19, long enough for the rest of the staff to get negative test results, he said.
[Alaska businesses largely pleased with Supreme Court scuttling federal vaccine requirements]
“I wake up in the morning with a cold shiver. And it’s not because my house isn’t heated,” Lewis said. “I’m afraid to look at my phone to see, jeepers creepers, I have a text saying, ‘Jack, we have a problem with a manager or a colleague.’ And that’s usually the first decision I make for the day. Is everyone healthy? Can we open all operations? I always start the day like that.
“Two years – it became a way of life for me,” he said.
“Two very long years”
Sarah Oates, president and CEO of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, said many Alaskan hotel businesses are struggling as the omicron variant exacerbates staffing issues.
Some restaurants are proactively limiting their hours to conserve resources and anticipate worsening staffing issues, Oates said.
Locally Grown Restaurants, which operates restaurants in Anchorage South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, Spenard Roadhouse and Snow City Cafe, is temporarily closing dine-in service on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at all three businesses, though they are still accepting take-out orders.
“We know it’s going to hit and it’s going to hit hard, because of the evidence that’s been seen around the world. So we just try to be really mindful of how we use our resources,” said Lana Ramos, community relations manager for Locally Grown.
Not having a full staff seven days a week will allow businesses to spread out staff resources and hopefully keep them out of a situation where they have to shut down completely because staff get sick or need to be laid off. in quarantine, Ramos said.
[Girdwood desperately needs housing. A large and unique proposal from a veteran developer aims to help — but residents have many questions.]
“It’s been two very long years and our staff are tired. So it’s also a great way to give them some respite. They worked hard,” Ramos said.
Other businesses in the city have limited their opening hours or closed in recent weeks due to a lack of staff. On Friday, Moose’s Tooth reopened its restaurant service after end it for almost a week due to a lack of staff, according to a social media post. Black Cup, a Midtown cafe, also reduced its hours last week. Popular downtown food spot Ginger closed one day this week due to ‘COVID staffing shortages’, according to a sign on his door. Calls to those companies asking for more details about the closures went unanswered or were returned.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, restaurants, bars and breweries in Anchorage have so far faced multiple food service closures and capacity restrictions. The most recent capacity restrictions were lifted in March last year.
Then, for months, labor shortages impacted Alaskan businesses. Alaska’s hospitality industry typically relies heavily on international workers, college students and nonresident workers, but the pandemic and other issues have drastically reduced their numbers, Oates said.
That, coupled with unexpected staff shortages due to positive cases, means “businesses continue to take a beating”, she said.
At the 49th State Brewing downtown, CEO and co-owner David McCarthy had to get creative to stay on staff. Usually at this time of year, the popular brewery needs around 150 staff, he said. It often relies on foreign and international workers. There is currently a shortage of about 40 workers.
“You don’t see people coming back, especially during seasonal volume increases like we used to in the past. They just don’t come back. They don’t even fill out applications to come back,” McCarthy said.
[Alaskans are getting COVID-19 in record numbers as some treatments’ scarcity prioritizes those most at risk]
McCarthy said its workforce has yet to be impacted by a surge in COVID-19 cases. A few employees have fallen ill after vacation trips. However, he is preparing for increased staffing challenges as the COVID-19 surge continues.
The restaurant had previously reduced its hours, likely a permanent change, McCarthy said. He’s airlifted seasonal staff who typically work summers in Anchorage from the Lower 48 to help, offered housing assistance, more competitive salaries, and instituted a small percentage of service charges on bills that go to cooks and other scullery workers who don’t get tips as an additional incentive to retain them.
“To operate this winter, at full capacity, we’ve actually had to retain the majority of our seasonal employees who work with us seasonally at our Denali locations,” he said. “…It shows you how difficult it has been – we’ve had to really reconsider and rethink how we’re going to keep moving forward with staffing going forward.”
The demand on employees “so much higher”
Bruce Burnett, owner of Bear Paw Bar & Grill in Midtown, intended to open a second location at the old Hard Rock Café downtown early last summer. But a delay in transferring a liquor license and no workers to hire have so far thwarted his plans.
Burnett does not know when he will be able to open the second location, he said.
“It will take at least 65 people to manage this. What if I was already missing 15 people in Midtown last summer? I mean, I couldn’t get people to work,” Burnett said. “We had people working double shifts, seven days a week.”
Burnett also reduced hours of operation at the Midtown site. The growing number of COVID-19 cases in Anchorage only adds to staffing issues, he said.
“If someone sniffles, we send them home for a week, because we don’t want to take any chance that we’ll get to where we have a bunch of people with COVID,” Burnett said.
Lewis said as the waves of COVID-19 come and go, the impact on his businesses is also growing, with some seeing drastic reductions. the number of customers as people choose to stay home rather than go out to eat.
“Restaurants aren’t out of the woods yet, far from it,” Lewis said.
Locally Grown’s Ramos said the restaurant group hopes that by cutting dine-in service it can also help reduce the number of cases in the city, although that means a big reduction in sales.
“It’s kind of Catch-22,” she said.
In separate interviews, Lewis and McCarthy said the majority of their staff are vaccinated, and as the omicron variant proves milder, especially among the vaccinated, much of the intense fear present earlier in the pandemic s is peaceful for the workers.
Still, hospitality industry staff are stretched and burned out, especially as guests expect pre-pandemic levels of service when the resources to provide that service are often simply not there, said Oates and others in the industry.
[COVID-19 exposure notification system launches for Alaska smartphone users after delays]
Recent supply chain issues, rising overhead, staffing issues and the new variant have caused further complications in an already struggling industry, they said.
“The demand on our employees, and on myself as owner, is so much higher in our business today than it has ever been in 16 years of operating these restaurants. So this is the toughest experience I’ve ever faced in the hospitality industry,” McCarthy said.