SPECIAL COVERAGE ON THE CORONAVIRUS  

BUSINESS

Scarlet Oak Executive Describes 6 Challenges Facing Restaurants

By Kristen Arute, Hingham Current Staff, September 10, 2020 

Between government restrictions and changes in consumer habits due to COVID, the service industry has been decimated by job loss. In Hingham, restaurants and shops are beginning to close their doors. To say that the food service industry in particular is struggling is an understatement. "I've been in the business for 30 years, and nothing comes remotely close to this, " said Chief Operating Officer Tom Totman of Webber Restaurant Group. Webber owns several restaurants, one of which is Scarlet Oak Tavern at Queen Anne's Corner.

Due to economic constraints, most people are spending less. And while diners still want the experience of having someone else prepare their food for them, concerns over the pandemic have reduced people's willingness to eat out. Some restaurants, like Scarlet Oak, are fortunate to have outdoor seating which is always popular during the summer months but has become critical to a restaurant's survival during COVID. "When you see restaurants putting seating in their parking lots, that's a desperate move," said Totman. "You have to make decisions that you wouldn't make under other circumstances."

Since restaurants were allowed to reopen after having been closed for three months, there is a particular urgency to staying afloat. Owners and staff are trying hard to do their jobs and make ends meet. However, that has proven challenging due to ongoing constraints, and it is made even more difficult when public sentiment is cooling. "When this first started, there was a lot of appreciation and a lot of huge tips," said Totman, "and that is waning."

Understandably everyone wants to return to some semblance of normalcy. Stress levels are high, and the end of summer brings with it new hurdles. The restaurant industry is bracing for the closure of outdoor dining space, and a potential upswing in COVID cases during the fall and winter months is being predicted. "Scarlet Oak is in good shape," said Totman, "and I think it's because we've been following protocol.

In addition to doing a deep cleaning every night, which is not required, Scarlet Oak staff wear masks, maintain social distancing at all times, and do temperature checks at the back door before the start of every shift. In early August, Webber also added a new, temporary position to their roster. Lisa Cowles was assigned the role of Coronavirus Compliance Manager. She travels to all four of the restaurants owned by Webber and makes sure they are following protocol.

In the meantime, restaurants like Scarlet Oak continue to adapt, and support and understanding from the public is more appreciated than ever before. Complaints and concerns which are usually welcomed because they contribute to improvement have taken on a new tone. "The reality is that there is a small portion of society that doesn't treat service staff with respect," said Totman. "When people use unnecessary language, that's the dehumanizing part. Right now it's harder than ever to take."

Totman outlined six things he would like the public to know.

1. GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS

Federal, state and local governments have placed requirements on restaurants that can be cumbersome and costly but need to be adhered to.

2. COVER COUNTS

"In order to stay in business, it's all about how many people you can have in your restaurant," said Totman. This is known as "cover counts." Since overall capacity has been reduced by around 50%, most restaurants have implemented time limits on tables to compensate for this. "It doesn't fit the normal mindset," said Totman, "but the industry has to do something."

3. STAFFING IS DIFFICULT.

Totman wants people to remember that restaurant staff are doing all that they can to be courteous and respectful amid the circumstances. "Staff is stressed and harder to manage," he said. "They are just trying to do their jobs."

4. MASKS

It's pretty straightforward, according to Totman. "We have to wear a mask," he said. "You don't have to except when you get up."

5. MAXIMUM PARTY SIZE

"Six is the maximum," Totman explained, "and restaurants have to enforce that."

6. COSTS HAVE INCREASED.

While restaurants have tried to keep their menu prices the same in order to shield consumers from "sticker shock," the cost of many items they purchase has gone up. "It's supply and demand," said Totman. Added to that is the expense of new cleaning products and other items used to ensure COVID compliance.

Fundamentally, the message is a simple one. "If you love your local restaurants and want to see them remain in business," said Totman, "now, more than ever, is the time to show them your love."

Kristen Arute can be reached at kristen@hinghamcurrent.com.