As the pandemic eases, how are Reno’s food businesses doing?

In the wake of COVID-19, window signs bemoaned the lack of staff and job applicants as Reno restaurants navigated the job market. Prospective applicants wanted more money, better benefits and were willing to wait for the right opportunities — often to the dismay of small business owners hoping for a return to normalcy.

Two years later, what has changed?

Although the latest numbers paint a rosy picture of employment levels in Nevada’s food and hospitality industries, some restaurateurs say Reno is still going through a transition phase, while others think the worst is behind them.

Here’s what some Reno restaurant owners are saying

Caitlin Fletcher, who co-owns local sandwich shop The Cheese Board with her sister Krista Phillips, says the main hurdle her business faces is salary expectations.

“What’s challenging in a small family restaurant setting is that the employees’ additional income was supplemented by customer tips,” Fletcher said. “However, with the rapid advancement of technology and the additional fees that come with the convenience and ease these technologies bring, the overall cost of doing business is higher across all industries.”

Fletcher says such costs are often passed on to the customer, who may then feel less inclined to pay extra tips on their bill.

“With margins already tight in the restaurant business, this puts owners in the difficult position of how to shoulder the burden of higher wages to attract and retain good employees while maintaining high quality food and reasonable prices for customers,” Fletcher said.

To adapt, Fletcher says the business has focused on creating an engaging work culture while maintaining transparency about salaries and growth opportunities.

“Creating a culture where your employees feel valued, seen and understood allows for happier staff, which will ideally translate to better customer service, which will then lead to return guests and higher tips,” Fletcher said.

Michael Mayman, a managerial veteran of Reno’s restaurant scene who currently serves as general manager of Longboards Pizza, says it’s “a long way from 2021.” One of the biggest things he’s seen since then is the changing dynamic in the food service workforce.

“The workforce is there, but the experience isn’t,” Maiman said.

Longboards had to raise pay to attract leadership and experienced staff, Maiman says, while hourly wages for entry-level workers haven’t changed much since the pandemic.

“Professionals who have stayed in the industry can definitely command more of a premium because they have those skills.”

Giving young people their first jobs has always been part of Longboards’ business model, says co-owner Julie Keller, which has helped expand the hiring pool. But even as it cast a wider net, the business couldn’t hire all the staff it wanted when Longboards opened a second location this summer. Longboards had to employ several 15-year-olds, who are limited by law to certain hours and duties.

Still, Keller says young people play an important role in the company’s culture.

“We like having a lot of high school kids around us,” Keller said. “We want high energy.”

The number of people employed in food services is rosy

Nevada boasts the second largest concentration of food service in the nation, and employment in the industry has grown by nearly 17% since December 2019. This level of growth outpaces any other state in the nation.

David Schmidt, chief economist for the research bureau of the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR), presented an optimistic view of the state’s food service industry.

“Foodservice as a whole is a key source of growth in the broader leisure and hospitality industry,” Schmidt said. “This industry was hit hard in the early months of the pandemic, but has recovered quickly and is now well above pre-pandemic employment.”

But not all food service and hospitality industries have enjoyed the same benefit.

Schmidt pointed out that, in contrast, the casino hotel industry has remained unchanged both before and after the pandemic. It still hasn’t regained its pre-recession employment.

Because Nevada has a higher share of jobs in the lodging sector than in food service, the Silver State tends to have high average wages in the leisure and hospitality industry compared to other states, and workers in the industry tend to work more hours. However, in recent months, hourly wages have dipped slightly after being very high a year ago.

The pandemic has opened up opportunities for growth

Krista Bea made the daunting decision to transform her artisan confectionery business, Sugar Love Chocolates, into a digital wholesale operation when, in 2020, the pandemic killed demand for luxury confections at her downtown Reno store.

Bea moved into a kitchen space shared with Nevada Brining Co., creating the delicious pastries and running the business entirely on her own. She enjoys a more profitable business and a better lifestyle without the overhead of a physical store. But it also had to face new challenges as a wholesaler in the digital marketplace.

“I think I assumed the business recovery would happen right after the new kitchen went in,” Bea said. “What I experienced instead was a period of stagnation after chaos. I think part of it was the general economy; some of this was missed business opportunities; but a lot of it was me adjusting as an entrepreneur.

“I’m basically running a new business and I’ve had to learn a lot about how to run it effectively. I think I finally figured it out and now I’m really focused on growth. The business feels like it’s in a good place now, doesn’t it.”

Bea says she still feels less stressed as she continues to run the Sugar Love operation herself, although she may hire part-time staff in the future. Year-over-year sales are steadily growing, she says, and the company is aiming for 20% growth in the fourth quarter of 2022.

“Overall, I feel like the company has finally recovered from the pandemic and all the chaos it brought,” Bea said. “Prices in the supply chain have also calmed down and some have even returned to pre-pandemic costs, so that’s made it easier to run the business as well.”

“So yeah, things are better than two years ago,” Bea said.

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