About 15 Sandy Springs restaurant owners gathered at il Giallo restaurant Wednesday to talk about the challenge of keeping their restaurants staffed and open as the pandemic grinds on. Pictured are Jennifer Cruce, executive director of Visit Sandy Springs, Mayor Rusty Paul, il Giallo co-owner Jamie Adams and Daryl Shular, chef and owner of the Shular Institute & Culinary School. Photo: Adrianne Murchison
Elmgren said he bought the former Meehan’s Public House establishment in Jan 2020 and renovated it over the next month to open on March 5, 2020 — days before the nation shut down.
After surviving the temporary closure, business has not returned to normal. He and other restaurant owners and managers discussed daily challenges during the forum at il Giallo restaurant. Dale DeSena, founder of such food festivals as Taste of Atlanta and Food that Rocks in Sandy Springs, organized the event. A Sandy Springs resident, DeSena thought the discussion could generate new ideas to help the business owners, she said.
Mayor Rusty Paul, il Giallo co-owner Jamie Adams, chef and owner of the Shular Institute & Culinary School Daryl Shular, and Jennifer Cruce, executive director of Visit Sandy Springs, were panelists in a discussion led by John Sawyer, publisher of Restaurant Informer magazine.
The restaurant owners have helped Sandy Springs to cultivate its dining scene over the past six years.
Il Giallo owner Adams said potential dish washers or line cooks are taking higher paying construction jobs for cash instead of accepting a position at his restaurant.
A bustling restaurant during the pandemic could garner a server $200 or more per week in tips, some of the owners said. Often servers share a percentage of their tips with food runners and kitchen staff, they added.
Most of the restaurant owners said the servers tip the kitchen staff. Facilitator Sawyer asked the owners if a change in business structure such as a flat pay to staff including servers, instead of tips, would help balance out business. But Adams and others said that would disincentivize the waitstaff.
“When we take the incentive (tips) out of the front of the house, that would just completely kill our business,” Adams said. “Servers … they’ve got to connect with people. It’s a lot more personal, intimate. It’s not easy.”
He and other owners said they’ve had to raise menu prices and step in themselves to wash dishes or expedite food to guests.
Jason Sheetz, who owns Hammock Trading Company and Under the Cork Tree, said he’s paid extra to get quality help through online staffing services. The restaurateurs said they’ve had limited success in turning to high schools with culinary programs or customers who might have children old enough to work at their establishments.
Shular is former director of education at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Atlanta and a former chef instructor at the Art Institute of Atlanta. He and business partner Sean Rush opened Farmed Kitchen & Bar and the Shular Institute culinary school in Tucker during the pandemic.
Shular said his culinary school is preparing students with hands-on entry level cooking skills that restaurants are in need of as well as offering long-term educational opportunities. “We do know the industry is dying to have someone come in, show up on time, have those soft skills of being professional, doing their job and having the integrity to communicate …” he said.
Adams added that each restaurant establishment has its own course of action to survive the changes brought by the pandemic.
“Everybody has a different route in the stream that they’ve got to take,” he said. “If it works for you, it works for you. You’ve go to choose the channel in the stream to give it your best.”