— Steve’s Marketplace —
Editor’s note: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insight on various topics in Marketplace.
As the fall season ascends on Amelia Island, local restaurants have platefuls of concerns and an insatiable hunger for solutions.
Things typically slow down this time of the year, as tourism wanes, so some of the angst is seasonal. However, little else of what restaurant owners are having to swallow right now is typical or normally on their menus.
And the woes may not be temporary. For instance, severe staffing shortages are compounded by the necessity to offer higher wages and even bonuses. Food costs are mushrooming from inflation and supply-chain disruptions. Popular items such as chicken have limited availability, and avocados have doubled in price. And virus-related interferences act like unknown variables, from sporadic mask mandates to restricted seating.
It’s enough for a restaurant owner to lose his appetite. When searching for new workers, help-wanted ads go unanswered; when they are answered, the applicants frequently don’t show up for interviews. New employees work for a week or two and quit from apathy or for another job – at another restaurant.
Some cannibalization of workers is inevitable in a small market like ours, with a limited labor pool. There are no major colleges to draw from in Nassau County, for instance. And workers won’t willingly travel here from Jacksonville, which has its own plethora of restaurants. (Let’s not ignore the added costs of commuting due to spiraling gas prices.)
In fact, many of the newcomers here are retired. They want to dine at our 100 delectable restaurants around Amelia Island, not work at them. Similar staffing and food problems exist for restaurants in Yulee and Callahan.
All the while, the labor shortage is compounded by extremely generous state and federal unemployment benefits. It can be financially favorable for hospitality workers to stay at home, rather than come to work.
Restaurants on Amelia Island also face challenges on another front. The restaurants sprouting up in Yulee provide additional competition – for diners and for workers. And many of the chains in Yulee can offer appealing healthcare/retirement benefits that privately owned restaurants cannot.
Meanwhile, small mom-and-pop restaurants are the hallmark of Amelia Island. Visitors cherish them. Major chains like Applebee’s and Beef O’Bradys don’t survive here.
But our restaurants face difficult choices. Raise prices, or serve smaller portions, and risk losing customers. The culinary competition is keen here. And more than a few restaurant owners are now having to cook, because they can’t find chefs.
The suffering is not just with local restaurants. A survey conducted by Goldman Sachs of restaurant and hospitality owners found nearly half of them expect to take out a loan or a line of credit this fall. In other words, they are concerned about operating capital, amid the unrelenting uncertainty.
There may also be additional loans available through the Small Business Administration, after several programs were overhauled. And there are calls for lawmakers to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
The RRF provided $28 billion in grants to the industry, but was quickly depleted. High demand was the cause. “We were able to disperse it to over 100,000 businesses across the country,” says SBA administrator Isabel Guzman. “However, the demand was 2.5 times that amount.”
In restaurant terms, this means there were a lot of mouths to feed. While many went hungry.
Steve Nicklas is a financial adviser with a regional brokerage firm who lives and works on Amelia Island. He is also an award-winning columnist. His columns also regularly appear in weekly newspapers in North Florida, and on his website at www.SteveNicklasMarketplace.com. He has published a book, “All About Money,” of his favorite columns from the past 20 years. The book is available on Amazon. He can be reached at 904-753-0236 or at [email protected]