VOICES: What will it take for local restaurants to survive in 2022?

Emily Mendenhall is the owner and general manager of Lily’s Dayton in the Oregon District and Vice President of the Oregon District Business Association.

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Emily Mendenhall is the owner and general manager of Lily’s Dayton in the Oregon District and Vice President of the Oregon District Business Association.

Let’s face it: the pandemic is not going away anytime soon. But Dayton’s locally owned restaurants don’t have to become pandemic casualties. We, restaurant owners, staff and customers can help restaurants survive in 2022. It won’t be easy and it will take all of us to change long-standing habits, but I know we can do it.

How do I know? I’ve seen what the pandemic has done to my restaurant, Lily’s. We went from Lily’s Bistro, with a seasonal focus, to overnight becoming a carryout restaurant earning 80% reduced revenue for months, and then reopened in June 2021 as Lily’s Dayton, a more budget-friendly, casual restaurant focusing on a tropical influenced bar program with menu items to match. But survival for my restaurant and all the locally owned and operated restaurants in Dayton will take more than a new name and a different menu. It will take the combined efforts of all of us.

Here are two big changes that will help locally owned restaurants survive in 2022: 1) Treat the people who work in restaurants better, and, 2) Charge a little more for dining out.

In the United States, we have a sad history of looking down upon service industry employees. Ask anyone who waits tables and they will have a story or ten about when customers have asked them what they do for their “real job.” Alternately, one need only look at the federal minimum wage of $2.13 for tipped employees to know how undervalued the work is.

Do restaurants need to increase wages and pay staff better? Absolutely. Has my business like most others increased wages to entice talent to stay? You bet. And we are happy to see wages going up, because restaurant workers need higher wages. It’s just wrong to ask the waitstaff, dishwashers and line cooks to carry this industry without paying living wages.

Better treatment starts with higher wages, but it does not end there. Every one of us can treat workers in the service industry with kindness, dignity, and respect.

This global pandemic has opened our eyes to the necessity of sick staff staying home. Yet, this means that we are forced to operate short-staffed, which leads to more stress on those at work. It’s harder to greet guests as quickly or prepare food at the same pace as we could with a full staff. Fluctuating cost and unpredictable supply chain issues have also led to menu items needing to be altered or being unavailable.

I’m sorry to say there is no way to raise the conditions of restaurant workers without a modest increase in the cost of restaurant meals. A recent article in Time cites what I know all too well: restaurants operate on a razor thin margin, with most failing in the first 3 years. In the best of times, restaurants work on a profit margin of 3% to 5%. It is up to customers to be willing to pay more so responsible businesses can pay both their bills and their staff.

Hospitality, at its core, is about welcoming people and taking care of them. For this to happen in 2022, restaurant workers need to be treated better, with increased wages, paid sick days and kindness. Otherwise, they will end up continuing to leave the industry. Our guests have to help as well by treating staff a little more kindly, tipping generously and accepting that dining out in 2022 will have to cost a little more and may look a little different. If we all do our part, locally owned restaurants like Lily’s Dayton will make it through 2022 and beyond.

Emily Mendenhall is the owner and general manager of Lily’s Dayton in the Oregon District and Vice President of the Oregon District Business Association.

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