For nearly two years, Anchorage’s restaurants, breweries and bars have weathered surge after surge of COVID-19. 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 staffed during a continuing worker shortage as workers get sick with the virus. To mitigate that issue, some Anchorage restaurants and bars are taking steps like cutting hours or operating fewer days of the week. Others have been forced to temporarily close after workers become ill.
Restaurateur Jack Lewis co-owns and runs multiple 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 has remained closed since early in 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.
“I wake up in the morning with a cold chill. And it’s not because my house is not heated,” Lewis said. “I’m afraid to look at my phone to see, jeepers creepers, do I have a text about, ‘Jack, we got a problem with a manager or co-worker.’ And that’s usually the first decision that I make for the day. Is everybody healthy? Can we open up all operations? I’m still starting the day like that.”
“Two years — it has become a way of life for me,” he said.
‘A really long two years’
Sarah Oates, president and CEO of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, said many Alaska hospitality businesses are struggling as the omicron variant exacerbates staffing challenges.
Some restaurants are limiting their hours proactively to conserve resources and keep ahead of worsening staffing challenges, Oates said.
Locally Grown Restaurants, which operates Anchorage restaurants South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, Spenard Roadhouse, and Snow City Cafe, is temporarily shutting down dine-in service on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at all three businesses, though they will still take to-go orders.
“We know it’s going to hit and it’s going to hit hard, because of evidence that’s been seen around the world. So we’re just trying to really be 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 the businesses to spread out the staffing resources and hopefully keep them out of a situation where they have to close entirely as staff get sick or need to quarantine, Ramos said.
“It’s been a really long two years and our staff is tired. So it’s also a nice way to be able to give them a little bit of a break. They’ve been grinding hard,” Ramos said.
Other businesses around town have limited their hours or closed in recent weeks due to staffing shortages. On Friday, Moose’s Tooth reopened its dine-in service after ending it for nearly a week due to a staffing shortage, according to a social media post. Black Cup, a Midtown coffeehouse, also reduced its hours last week. Popular downtown dinner spot Ginger closed one day this week due to “COVID staffing shortages,” according to a sign on its door. Calls to those businesses to ask for more details on the closures either weren’t answered or returned.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Anchorage restaurants, bars and breweries have so far dealt with multiple shut downs of dine-in service and capacity restrictions. The most recent capacity restrictions were lifted in March of last year.
Then for months, labor shortages have impacted Alaska businesses. The Alaska hospitality industry typically leans heavily on international workers, university students and non-resident 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 major hits,” she said.
At 49th State Brewing in downtown, CEO and co-owner David McCarthy has had to get creative to stay staffed. Usually at this time of the year, the popular brewhouse needs about 150 employees, he said. It often relies on out-of-state and international workers. It’s currently short about 40 workers.
“You don’t see the people coming back, especially during seasonal increases in the volume like we used to in the past. It just they’re not coming back. They’re not even filling out applications to come back,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said his workforce hasn’t been impacted by a big upswing in COVID-19 cases yet. A few employees became sick after holiday travels. However, he is bracing for increased staffing challenges as the COVID-19 surge continues.
The restaurant had already trimmed its hours, likely a permanent change, McCarthy said. He’s flown seasonal staff who usually work in the summer back to Anchorage from the Lower 48 to help, offered housing assistance, more competitive wages and instituted a small percentage service fee on bills that goes toward cooks and other back-of-house workers who don’t get tips as an additional incentive to retain them.
“To operate this winter, full-force, we actually had to retain a majority of our seasonal employees that work with us seasonally in our Denali locations,” he said. “...That just tells you how challenging it has been — we’ve had to really reconsider and rethink how we’re going to continue moving forward with staffing in the future.”
Demand on employees ‘so much higher’
Bruce Burnett, owner of the Bear Paw Bar & Grill in Midtown, had plans to open a second location at the old Hard Rock Café location downtown early last summer. But a delay in getting a liquor license transferred and no workers to hire has so far stymied his plans.
Burnett doesn’t know when he’ll be able to open the second location, he said.
“It‘s going to take conservatively 65 people to run that. And if I’m already 15 people short in Midtown last summer? I mean, I could not get people to work,” Burnett said. “We had people working double shifts, seven days a week.”
Burnett has cut operation hours at the Midtown location too. The rapidly growing COVID-19 case counts in Anchorage just add to the staffing concerns, he said.
“If somebody gets a sniffle, we send them home for a week, because we don’t want to take any chances of us getting to where we have a bunch of people with COVID,” Burnett said.
Lewis said that as the waves of COVID-19 ebb and flow, so does the impact on his businesses, with some experiencing drastic reductions in the number of customers as people choose to stay home rather than go out to eat.
“Restaurants are not out of the woods yet, by any means,” Lewis said.
Ramos of Locally Grown said the restaurant group hopes that by reducing dine-in service, they can help reduce case counts in the city too, although it means a big reduction in sales.
“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” she said.
In separate interviews, Lewis and McCarthy said that the majority of their staffs are vaccinated, and as the omicron variant is proving to be milder especially among the vaccinated, much of the intense fear present earlier in the pandemic has subsided for workers.
Still, hospitality industry staff are exhausted and burned out, especially as customers expect pre-pandemic levels of service when the resources to provide that service often just aren’t there, Oates and others in the industry said.
Recent supply chain issues, climbing overhead costs, staffing concerns and the new variant have caused further complications in an already struggling industry, she and others said.
“The demand on our employees, and on myself as an owner, is so much higher in our business now than it’s ever been in the 16 years of running these restaurants. So it’s the most challenging experience I’ve ever faced in the hospitality industry,” McCarthy said.