Tables up, masks down Tuesday, but struggles are ahead for restaurants


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Half the tables at Sparks BBQ in Grand Rapids’ Arena District have been stored away for the last 16 months.

But it’s time to start putting them back together and on the floor.

“We’re right now at 36 people, so we’re going to double that to 72,” said Mike Wheeler, who manages the arena district barbecue restaurant.

The pandemic-driven mask mandates and capacity limits that were supposed to end July 1 will now end on Tuesday, a little more than a week ahead of schedule.

It’s good news, especially for those restaurants and bars hard hit by the closures and restrictions. But the hospitality industry still has several challenges ahead as it tries to rebound.

One of the biggest challenges will be finding people to wait tables or tend bars. Many pre-pandemic employees either went on unemployment or found other work.

As the state’s unemployment rates hover around the 5% mark, 23% of that total comes from the hospitality industry.

“This is a great day. But we’ve got a long road ahead of us,” said Scott Ellis, executive director for the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association.

Sparks BBQ in Grand Rapids on June 17, 2021.

The industry needs workers.

The association is working with the state to leverage COVID-19 relief funds to attract people to the industry through training programs, a campaign on the benefits of working in the industry and other incentives. 

“We actually have a bill out there right now to lower the age from 18 to 17 to allow 17-years-olds to be able to sell alcohol and be part of the process because we need that extension of workers,” Ellis said.

Back downtown at Sparks, they’re ready for business.

“We’re currently fully staffed and ready to rock and roll,” Wheeler said.

But it hasn’t been easy. Sparks lost most employees to the pandemic shutdown.

They started recruiting new workers well before the light at the end of the tunnel was in view. Their effort paid off for the restaurant in the fact they’ll have staffing.

But it’ll benefit to even more for the new employees’ bank accounts. 

“We saw maybe a 10 to 20 percent increase there. Especially in the back of the house, we’re seeing higher wages, competitive wages,” Wheeler said. “The market is for the employee right now.”

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