Restaurants Navigate Post-Pandemic Challenges in Westchester

Photo by Fitzkes/ Adobe Stock

Restaurateurs in Westchester are having to manage customers’ service expectations amid difficulties finding help.

“Think of restaurants as having long-haul COVID,” says Stephanie Small, owner of UnWined Kitchen in Somers. More than two years into the pandemic, restaurants are struggling with an unprecedented labor shortage. They’re finding while some customers do understand the exigent realities, others are having trouble adjusting to the new normal.

Small says she’s read the question asked by some customers online: “How long are restaurants going to use COVID as an excuse?” When it comes to staff shortages, she finds the best way to communicate with customers is to be totally honest. “I find my customers are quite empathetic when I’m open with them that there may be some delays with their food.” Small notes she’s actually had some customers offer to help in various ways — from seating people to bartending, even to a chef offering her services. At UnWined, the labor shortage meant the restaurant had to close for a time when it lost its chef; it cut back on its open-for-business days; and there’s been a return to its smaller-plates beginnings.

Michael Glick, owner of The Shop, Ardsley, a hybrid restaurant serving bagels, sandwiches, and soups during the day and dinner in the evening, says when people order in what is considered a “fast-service environment,” they’re often impatient when their food doesn’t come out in what they consider a timely manner. “During the breakfast and lunch rush, we have to be very upfront with people about the length of time it will take to get their order.” Glick says a lack of line cooks and the proliferation of third-party apps contribute to the situation (“I’m actually looking to move myself off those apps,” he says). Glick advises patience, noting, “Just because you’re in a rush, staring at the staff and getting angry at them doesn’t make the food come out any faster.”

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Photo by Fitzkes/ Adobe Stock

Jeremy McLellan, owner of Bread and Brine, in Hastings, is another restaurateur who says customers are going to continue to see a slowdown in takeout orders. “We do a tremendous amount of takeout, and we’re increasingly telling people their orders are going to take over an hour if they call during peak times.” McLellan says he’s had to take the phone off the hook to stop taking those orders, to help alleviate an overflow in the kitchen. The restaurant, which went to a fast-casual concept during the height of the pandemic, is now returning to its original concept as a full-service restaurant. “The change to a clam-shack vibe was embraced by some customers but not by others,” he says, adding that outdoor dining creates a whole other dimension to service needs and has him “walking that line between fast-casual and more traditional dining.”

Some customers may feel their server is rude, but the reality is that they’re rushing more and often don’t have time for the same interactions with their tables as in days past.

Pamela Schienle, co-owner with her husband of Nadine’s, in Yorktown Heights, confirms that outdoor dining is both a boon and a burden to the staff. She and McLellan agree that, unfortunately, customers may have a harder time getting a reservation during peak days and times. “Mondays through Thursdays are great nights to dine out,” says Schienle. She points out that some customers may feel their server is rude, but the reality is that they’re rushing more and often don’t have time for the same interactions with their tables as in days past. Schienle adds that it’s up to the owner to enlighten guests when service may be a little slower. “We’ve been having issues finding bartenders, so servers often not only have to take drink orders but prepare them, as well.”

“We’ve added more information to our menus, in terms of listing every ingredient and allergen, as a way of cutting back the amount of time a server spends with a table,” says Mogan Anthony, co-owner and executive chef of Village Social Group, adding that the heart of the restaurant business is the food, “but if the service is great, it’s a bonus, and they really go hand-in-hand.” He points out that customers may be seeing less-elaborate menus, with fewer ingredients, as it’s the menu that dictates a restaurant’s bottom line. He also says staffs are demanding, and getting, higher salaries, which translates to higher menu prices.

“We understand that customers don’t want every dining experience to be a splurge, and with having neighborhood restaurants, we want people to dine at our locations more than once a week. But customers also have to realize that we must raise prices at some point in order to show a profit.”

Kate Schlientz, founder of the Restaurant Alliance of Westchester (RAW), a trade group formed in the wake of the pandemic, says, “Guests are 50 percent responsible for the experience they have in a restaurant.” She adds that with a pool of labor talent that is “quite small,” customers should demonstrate patience and have an understanding and appreciation when they dine out. “If there is an issue, with either food or service, customers lose the chance for the owner or manager to make it right if they don’t say anything prior to leaving.” Schlientz also urges that those messages be delivered “in a calm manner.” She says that going forward, people are going to be dealing with more inexperienced servers, with managers and owners being pulled in many different directions, and with restaurants cutting days and hours. “As restaurateurs continue to invest in their restaurants, customers need to feel invested in them as well.”

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