Restaurants in Parsons, hard hit from closing to dine-in customers for weeks due to COVID-19, are breathing a little sigh of relief as customers enter their doors again this week.
At the same time, restaurants are bracing for a second hit to their businesses as beef prices soar and meat is more difficult to come by.
“I’m not going to lie. It’s about to bankrupt me,” said Paul Pizzo, who has operated Pizzo’s Restaurant, 2318 N. 16th St., for about 15 years.
The public’s concerns over contracting the coronavirus and his business having to close the doors to dine-in customers was nearly a death blow to his thriving business. There was some customer response requesting curb-side service and delivery, but the restaurant was losing money every week paying employees to help.
“We did that about a month and then I said, ‘I’m done.’ I texted my employees and said, ‘We will be closed until further notice and be prepared because this could be indefinite.’ And then I put it on Facebook, ‘We will be closed until further notice,’ and then in my mind, I was done,” he said Friday.
He stayed closed for about two weeks. Pizzo had applied for Small Business Administration funds but had heard nothing.
“I filled out this form for the SBA loan on March 8 and I just received a whopping $3,000 last Tuesday. So it was almost two months,” Pizzo said. “That’s not even quite enough to pay my utilities and my rent for one month.”
Funds set aside for sales tax and quarterly taxes were diminished to cover overhead due to revenue losses, and though his accountant is pushing for the taxes to be paid, Pizzo said he simply doesn’t have the money to pay them.
“That’s going to be the problem is catching up on stuff like that, even if I get enough business to keep the doors open,” he said.
Now the state has given permission for restaurants to start opening with precautions.
“I don’t know if anybody knows what the precautions are. I can’t run my business if they tell me, ‘You can only have 10% of your capacity,’ which would only allow me to have like six people in here at a time. I mean, I might as well just lock the doors right now,” Pizzo said. “We opened the doors back up and people that aren’t worried about it come in and eat, and people that are worried, if they want they come in and wear their mask and pick it up and take it and leave.
“We actually had a couple people today who didn’t even want to come in and asked us if we could bring it out to them. We were like, ‘Sure, we’ll run it out to you.’”
At one point Friday, he had about nine of his 14 tables full, and still most people were 6 feet apart except the people sitting at the same table together.
Business has slowly been returning. Word is still getting around, though Pizzo said, “I’m sure there are a lot of people out there that aren’t ready to go sit in a restaurant yet.”
Customers who have long supported him is the reason he decided to try to stay in business.
“I just hope I get enough business to pay my bills because I had so many people reaching out to me say, ‘Please don’t shut down. Do whatever you can to keep it open.’”
Amid all the other concerns is now the added concern of acquiring beef and its cost to his business.
Before, he would order 80 pounds of hamburger at a time, freeze it and take it out as he needed it. On Friday he said he still has some on hand he bought when it was about $3 a pound, which he noted was still a high price at the time. Last Thursday, he learned hamburger was going to cost $5.09 a pound.
“So I was sitting there thinking, ‘What do I do? I can’t sit out here and sell a cheeseburger for $4.99 when I’ve got like $1.75 in just the hamburger. That’s not including the bun and the cheese and the stuff on the side. So I’m going to have to do something, but I don’t really know. I don’t have time to change my whole menu, but I’m thinking of putting something in there that says, ‘These particular items will be $1 more and please don’t think this is greed. It’s more of a need,’ and hope people understand because the places I buy my food from they can pretty much change their prices daily.”
Pizzo knew the cost of hamburger had gone up for his business, but when he went to the store to buy hamburger for himself he was shocked.
“I bought a little package from King Cash Saver, 2.43 pounds, and it cost me damn near $16 bucks. It’s ridiculous,” he said.
If people aren’t able to buy beef for their homes, he is not sure if they will buy it when they eat out.
“I’m hearing ranchers can’t get rid of their cows and a lot of the meatpackers are closed. I wish I understood more of what is going on and why prices are going up. … I guess that’s why I run a restaurant and not the country,” he said, trying to find the humor in the situation.
“The bad thing about it is in this town there’s some people that already think I’m overpriced. I’m not saying anything bad about the people in this town, but I only hear from people in this town, ‘You got damn good food, but you’re kind of pricey.’ People from out of town come in and we ring them up and they are like, ‘Is that it? Did you miss something?’ I tell them, ‘No,’ and they’re like, ‘Your prices are too cheap.’ I’m like, ‘Well, they are that way for a reason.’”
Pizzo said he has always tried to buy the best meat he can to ensure that customers come back and he plans to continue to do the same. He is hoping there will be a little more help for his business financially, such as through the Payroll Protection Program, to keep it afloat.
“For now, the best I can do is hope enough people walk through that door every day to where I can keep the doors open,” he said.
Tony Adams, owner of Shredder’s Smokehouse, 3330 Main, is hoping the same.
“It hit us hard like all the rest of them,” Adams said of having to close his restaurant building to customers coming in for good food and conversation. “It was an instant drop in business because it scared everybody. For two weeks, we pretty much lost everything. We have to recover from that. We never closed. Whenever it took effect the damage was almost like we were closed. We were trying to stay open and figure out what to do. We wasted a lot of food, just like any other restaurant, trying to figure out what your customer base is going to be. We came real close to closing.”
He said many people from Parsons have done a good job of getting out and supporting their local businesses.
“We were doing carryouts. It was a whole new game for us. We’ve always done a carryout business, but not like that. It was a training process for everybody,” Adams said. “I went from 25 employees to five employees real quick. We had to lay off plenty. For whatever reason, we made it through it. That third week came around and everything started to pick up. We just hung in there with minimal staff and made it work. We slowly brought back the majority of them.”
Some people were doubting servers would return to work, opting to stay home and collect the higher unemployment promised, but Adams laughed, noting they enjoy the interaction with customers as much as he does and were happy to return to work.
“The waitresses want to be in front of the customers just as bad as I do sometimes. They make good money doing that, too, I think,” he said.
Right now, Shredder’s is open for limited dine-in, which is still difficult when a restaurant is accustomed to more personalized service with all of its customers.
“That’s a big thing to be able to visit with them and talk to them. That’s part of being a restaurant owner, you want to be able to visit with your customers,” Adams said. “Right now it’s still about 85% carryout. People are still scared to get out.”
While hoping to regain his customer base, Adams faces a dilemma serving smoked meat in how to handle the impact of purchasing higher priced beef and pork.
“It’s hitting us hard right now,” he said Friday, adding that this week is going to be another challenge simply getting product. “We posted on our Facebook page we’re no longer going to be selling any meat by the pound because I’m so limited on what I can get. We’re kind of scrambling to find product. It’s real difficult. Till all the meatpacking plants get back to going full-steam, this is going to be a problem for about a month.”
He knows he could have to raise prices on some items, but he is hoping to avoid it as much as possible.
“When you’ve got hamburger and beef not doubling but tripling in price overnight, it’s going to be hard for us to swallow that with the hole we’ve got to get out of anyway,” Adams said. “Customers are not going to want to have to pay the price I’d have to charge. That’s why we’re getting away from the meat by the pound, because it’s not going to be worth it. It is definitely going to be an issue.
“We have a pretty versatile menu, and we’re hoping we can highlight some other items that are not involved in this. That’s some of the things that we’re going to work on this coming week is highlighting them and maybe steer away from the high prices.”
With beef and pork, it is not just cost, but issues with availability.
“It’s just real hard to get,” Adams said. “Like grocery stores limiting people to a certain amount, rationing it so everyone can have some. It’s pretty hard when we go through 80 pounds of ground beef a week for hamburgers and I’m only allowed 40 pounds from my supplier. It’s a challenge, and it’s going to be a bigger challenge in the weeks coming up. The double hit is going to hurt.
“We’ve been in the community now for almost 20 years and we hope to be here longer,” Adams said. “We think we’re going to recover. It’s going to take a while to get out of the hole we’ve got ourselves in, but I think through time we’ll be able to make it through fine.”