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Restaurant owners face tough new realities

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune James Ronda, the co-owner of Punky's Diner, was forced to shut down business until Labor Day because staff under quarantine.
COVID closures, supply shortages and labor woes make the restaurant business tougher than ever

Repeat closures, physical-distancing and mask rules have made pandemic life tough for restaurant and food truck owners, and now labor and supply shortages have created another rollercoaster of hard knocks.

Several local favorites have closed their doors since last summer, including R&D’s Sandwich Factory and BricktownE Brewing in Medford, and Mazatlan Grill in Central Point.

Those still fighting to keep their doors open are navigating labor and supply shortages that are forcing lots of compromise on menu items and limited operating hours.

Punky’s Diner co-owner Jim Ronda said that every week for the past year and a half has been like a random grab bag of obstacles to maneuver. Ronda and his wife, Connie, were recently forced to close for nearly two weeks after two employees had to quarantine due to COVID exposure. Ronda said he and Connie, both in their 70s, tried to handle all the cooking, but it proved to be too much.

“We, right now, have probably the cleanest kitchen on the planet. It usually is anyway, but it’s the cleanest it’s been since we opened because we’ve been doing nothing but cleaning,” he said during the closure.

“We’ve thrown away and given away hundreds of dollars worth of food because we couldn’t be open.”

Ronda said the closure comes on the heels of struggles to maintain staffing levels, supply shortages and rising grocery prices, all related to a lack of staffing at warehouses and shipping yards.

“And it goes all the way up. If you can’t pack meat, there’s no reason to slaughter cows. I heard the country was short 80,000 truck drivers. We had one episode a couple weeks ago where we got a call on Monday morning and they said we couldn’t get our order because nobody was available to pack the order.”

Ronda said he and Connie had been forced to limit some menu options and substitute certain items, even with creative shopping between wholesale suppliers and local grocers.

“Cisco has limited us to a number of packages we can get. Supplies are affected by the labor issues. It’s all tied together, and all of the sudden prices are through the roof, too. We haven’t raised our menu prices in three years, but food prices are up at least 30% or more,” he said.

Peruvian Point food truck owner Christian Ainzuain said he had contemplated price increases and a temporary closure in recent months but was grateful for continued customer loyalty.

“We used to do one-stop shopping and now we’ve got to go three or four places to find what we need. On top of that, paying three or four times as much as we were paying. My chicken, I used to get from one supplier, but now the price of a case has doubled,” Ainzuain said.

“It’s all just making it impossible to be profitable. You work your butt off for nothing. I’m lucky now to have all my wonderful employees. We’ve been going through a few people, but we’ve got a good crew. … We just take it one day at a time.”

Erica and Jeremiah Debusk, owners of Crackin’ and Stackin’ in Eagle Point, Central Point and Medford, said they were trying to keep a positive mindset. The couple opened their third location during the pandemic and have offered help to other restaurants wherever possible with sharing or trading supplies.

“I just wake up every day with the idea that we’ve just got to make it through today, and so far we’ve made it through a year and a half of all this, so I’m pretty humbled by this experience and trying to be grateful to still be standing,” said Erica Debusk.

“It would be pretty easy to not be, because look at the places that have closed, so I’m really grateful for staff and grateful for the community’s support. We opened our third location, in Medford, after the first shutdown. Things started getting back to normal so we felt like, ‘OK, well, we made it. We’re done. But, oh, how naïve we were.”

Debusk said she was sad for the restaurants that had to close, and she echoed the sentiments of Ronda and Ainzuain on labor and supply challenges.

“The hardest thing is that you want to be able to pay your people well, because a lot of people are making more on unemployment than they would working, but the profit margins are not high enough to have as much staff as you even need,” she said.

“Nobody can survive unless they can charge $20 to $25 for an omelet, and that’s just not feasible. It’s not that our staff isn’t worth it, because they are, but you’re between a rock and a hard place when costs are going up and people will still only pay so much for bacon and eggs.”

Debusk said some good old-fashioned patience on the part of businesses and customers was crucial.

“The biggest thing I’m trying to communicate to my guests is, if you come in and you get something that isn’t the usual, or maybe it’s been made a little bit different, it’s not that we’re trying to cut costs. We just can’t find the products we’ve used for years,” she said.

“It’s heartbreaking as a business owner. I’ve tried to build my business on consistency, and right now we’re feeling pretty lucky to just keep the doors open. We’re all one bad week away from that same fate. This week we’re treading water. Next week? Who knows how far you’ll be from that point where you don’t have it in you to try anymore.”

She added, “I would still do anything to help restaurant owners out there. I don’t look at it as competition at all. Years ago, somebody told me there’s room for everybody. We’re all just trying to get through to the other side of all this.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.