“Bear with me. I’ll be with you in a minute,” Sharon Freshwater, co-owner of Freshwaters Restaurant, said as new customers walked through the door.
As a pandemic-related labor shortage drags on, Freshwater and her husband, Cliff Freshwater, are working as a two-person staff to keep their business afloat. While Sharon serves customers in the dining room, her husband cooks food in the kitchen.
At Lulu’s Maryland Style Chicken and Seafood, known for its signature crab cakes, co-owner Joseph “Jay” Davis is wrestling with another pandemic-related problem — sporadic shortages of meat.
“We don’t have a lot of what our most recognizable dishes are because we don’t know when crab meat is going to come in and when we are going to have it,” he said.
As the spread of Covid-19 enters a troubling new phase with the rise of the more contagious Delta variant, some of Charlotte’s most prominent Black-owned restaurants are still reeling from the first wave of the pandemic.
In addition to struggling with food and labor shortages, some owners, like Sharon and Cliff Freshwater, said customers have been slow to return.
“It’s been a struggle,” Sharon Freshwater told QCity Metro during a recent interview. “We’re still working on getting people back out to the restaurant. We’re running specials, but it doesn’t seem to be working.”
In late March, Datassentail, a Chicago research firm that tracks the food industry, reported that 10 percent of all U.S. restaurants had closed permanently since the pandemic began. That included restaurants at all levels of service — from fine dining to fast food.
Especially hard hit were food trucks, the company reported, noting that 22.5% of the mobile restaurants nationwide are now off the road.
In Charlotte, among the Black restaurant owners interviewed by QCity Metro, nearly all cited labor shortages as being among their top concerns.
Andarrio Johnson, owner of Cuzzo’s Cuisine, speculated that enhanced unemployment benefits may be to blame, an opinion shared by more than a few employers, economists and conservative politicians.
“A lot of people make more money off of unemployment, so they feel like they could stay home and make unemployment money instead of working,” Johnson said. “That was our problem.”
To blunt the economic impact of Covid-19, the U.S. Congress approved an aid package that included enhanced benefits for laid-off workers. Those benefits, which total an extra $300 a week, are set to expire Sept. 6.
In North Carolina, the minimum cash wage for workers who receive tips is $2.13 an hour.
One of Charlotte’s most noted Black-owned restaurants, Leah & Louise, announced in June that it would begin adding a 23% service charge to all bills as part of a larger plan to provide its workers with a livable wage.
“There’s been a lot of conversation about how to change the hospitality industry,” co-owner Greg Collier said in a statement when the service charge was announced. “We want to make sure our staff is treated as well as we treat our guests. We can’t be in the service industry and only serve ownership.”
At Bobbee O’s BBQ, the pain is less about staffing and more about the rising cost of meat, said Chloria Chandler, the restaurant’s marketing manager.
“In certain months, we had our sales slightly increase from the year before, then the food price doubled,” she said. “It’s just a situation like even when your numbers are good, they really weren’t.”
Chandler said that these food hikes affected sales, leading Bobbee O’s to raise the price on some of its menu items.
Roy Grant, co-owner and founder of Roy’s Kitchen and Patio, said economic problems brought on by the pandemic have caused “a lot of challenges.”
The Caribbean restaurant, which once opened at 11 a.m., has been forced to limit its hours because of worker shortages and higher operating costs. That also has meant more hands-on work for the owners.
“We try to work with what we have,” Grant said. “Some days we don’t open up until four o’clock in the evening because of the staff.”