Houston restaurant owners face summer of uncertainty after COVID-19 pandemic

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — For Chris Shepherd, most days since Texas reopened have felt like a country line dance: one step forward, two steps back.

The James Beard Award-winning chef and Houston restaurateur said after waging war against the effects of COVID-19 at his concepts for more than a year, signs of life are flourishing at Georgia James, Hay Merchant, UB Preserv, and One Fifth Mediterranean.

But as more patrons get vaccinated against the coronavirus and step back out into the open, time has suddenly become the latest threat to his business.

“We don’t know what this summer looks like, and that is terrifying,” Shepherd told ABC13 during Thursday night’s town hall, focused on the restaurant industry’s challenges during the pandemic. “People now can travel and go, and we all know Houstonians want to go.”

Three Brothers Bakery owner Janice Jucker considers herself blessed. The grocery store-like model at her shop meant continued business throughout the pandemic, but she said she feels change is coming.

“Frankly, I think this summer we probably will be down because people will go on vacation, and last year they didn’t,” Jucker said.

More than 10,000 Texas restaurants were forced to close during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 85% of Texas operators say their restaurant’s profit margin is lower than it was prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, according to the Texas Restaurant Association.

Six years of restaurant growth was wiped out by the pandemic. Nationally, restaurants lost $240 billion in sales in 2020, and 2.5 million jobs have disappeared as the U.S. continues to grapple with the pandemic.

Restaurant owners we spoke with said an infusion of funding from Congress could help matters, but the demand for help has been overwhelming.

In March, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, which included the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund, designed to cover pandemic-related revenue losses to restaurants, food trucks, bars, taprooms and breweries.

U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher said the fund faced a serious shortfall by May, after more than 372,000 applicants responded with a total need of $76 billion. She said she’s now fighting to get more money in the hands of restaurant owners.

“Houston’s a food town. We’re so proud of the diversity, of the kinds of different places to go and the amazing food, and that’s important,” Fletcher said. “There’s no better example of a community where the restaurants are really the heart of the community than right here in Houston.”

Compounding the concerns of both restaurant owners and patrons alike is the shortage of hospitality employees and the demand for higher wages.

Shepherd said his team has looked at both issues from every angle, but says pay raises would require passing the cost along to diners at a time when everything is more expensive.

“What happened over the past year, a lot of things broke,” Shepherd said. “The food chain broke. Fryer oil went from $19 a container to $39 a container overnight. Beef prices are through the roof.”

Jucker says addressing systemic issues touching many Houston workers, like access to healthcare and solving who will watch the kids, could go a long way in attracting new employees.

“The issue of affordable childcare is a huge problem, especially in this industry where we employ a lot of young people,” Jucker said. “They are essential for the economic recovery of America.”

The restaurant owners we spoke with also said getting clarity on whether they will have to pay back their remaining Paycheck Protection Program loans is an important factor in their recovery from the pandemic.

Want to help restaurant and hospitality workers recover from the pandemic? Visit the Southern Smoke website to learn more.

Watch a recap of the event, live newscasts and in-depth reporting from ABC13 on your favorite streaming devices, like Roku, FireTV, AppleTV and Google TV. Just search “ABC13 Houston.”

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