GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — While mask mandates and capacity restrictions are easing, the battle to stay open is far from over for Michigan’s businesses.
“The restaurant industry is reemerging from 15 months of restricted occupancy to an economy with surging commodity prices and very serious workforce challenges,” Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, said.
As traveling and dining picks up in the state, Michiganders may notice those challenges leading to some changes in their summertime experience.
If you’re planning to go out to eat more, get ready to pay more.
The rising cost of practically everything is showing up in menu prices at many Michigan restaurants, industry officials say.
“It’s happening all over… honestly, everybody I talk to has raised (prices),” said Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association.
He also owns Michigrain Distillery in Lansing. He said he held off raising drink menu prices until this week. Now, guests can expect to pay $0.25 to $0.50 more per cocktail.
Ellis said many bars and restaurants are forced to pass on costs because they operate on slim margins that were already gutted during the pandemic. Restaurants who have opted to build outdoor seating and patios to boost business are also paying more because of rising construction costs.
Ellis said small businesses are feeling the squeeze faster and harder than restaurant chains because they don’t have as large of a pool of money to draw from during tough times like now.
“We have to pay more money for rent, more money for bills, more money, you know, for everything,” said Maria Martinez, owner of Tamales Mary.
On Michigan Street NE in Grand Rapids, Bob’s Bar owner Bob Quay said the rising price of food has forced him to slightly increase prices on specials: a beer, burger and fries will cost $7 now instead of $6. Char Asian Fusion downtown has also raised the price of its tacos, broth bowls and rice bowls by at least $1 each “due to restaurant inventory price inflation in the present market.”
“I’m just trying to survive,” said Char owner Abdul Qassem. “I have mouths to feed — my employees, my family.”
Martinez of Tamales Mary said she had to raise the price of her tacos from $3.50 to $4 each.
“It’s hard (for) us to increase the prices on the menu, but everything — everything, believe me — everything is up,” she said.
In the Belknap Lookout neighborhood, Garage Bar and Grill owner Kevin Farhat said he hasn’t had to raise prices yet, but always examines costs before pricing seasonal menus.
While some restaurants are notifying guests about menu price hikes, Ellis said most restaurants are adjusting their pricing quietly with few complaints from customers.
And the prices you saw last year may be gone forever, according to Ellis.
“Once something goes up, it usually doesn’t go down,” he said.
While demand in the food service industry is picking up, supply chains haven’t recovered. Ellis said some spirits are out of stock simply because manufacturers don’t have enough glass and bottle caps to bottle products.
David Ozgo with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States said the glass shortage was causing trouble for smaller distillers a few weeks ago because of the supply chain lag time after restarting factories.
With fewer people in the workforce, food suppliers and shipping businesses are also having to pay more to keep their companies going, a cost they pass onto their clients.
Commodity prices are also rising. The cost of corn — a key ingredient in Martinez’s tamales — is 60% higher than last year, she said. A box of chicken that previously cost her $40 is now triple the price.
Chicken wing prices have risen so much that some restaurants have taken the item off their menus, including Lansing’s Smokehouse Barbecue.
FEWER PLACES, HOURS TO VISIT
Ellis said the top issue facing restaurants now is finding employees.
“We were having trouble getting employees when times were good,” said Ellis, who raised wages when his distillery reopened, knowing tips would be minimal because of slower business.
The president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association says overall, restaurants this year have increased wages at twice the rate of the next highest industry to lure talent, but “remain imperiled” by the lack of staffing.
In Southgate near Detroit, Mallie’s Sports Bar and Grill is offering a sign-on bonus of up to $2,000 for cooks.
Qassem, who owns Char in Grand Rapids, says he is paying his workers more but keeping a full staff is a challenge. Qassem said he works 95 hours a week between Char and his adjacent restaurant Gita Pita.
For some, the lack of workers is eating into business hours and openings. West Michigan-based Wing Doozy announced on Facebook Thursday it would be closing its Plainfield location until it could find enough people to reopen.
The shortage forced Tamales Mary to delay its May 25 grand opening in Grand Rapids’ Eastown neighborhood. Martinez said the new restaurant received about 40 job applications but only about seven people were available to work.
“(I’m) a little bit frustrated ’cause it’s not only here in this location, it’s everywhere. It’s all restaurants, all factories… everywhere else is hiring people. So I’m not the only one,” she said.
Martinez now expects to open the restaurant at 1551 Wealthy St. SE the first week of June. Customers are encouraged to follow Tamales Mary Eastown’s Facebook page for updates.
“I love to make tamales. I love to provide good food to the people. Right now, it’s a little complicated, but I’m still here. I will continue to do it. And I hope everybody can support us and… at the time we open, everybody (can) come here just to try or say hi,” Martinez said.
Bars and restaurants aren’t the only industry feeling the squeeze from worker shortages. Favorite summertime attraction Cedar Point in Ohio has trimmed the days it’ll be operating this season while doubling wages to attract staff.