Utah restaurants, bars are still on ‘life support.’ Here’s what they need to survive.

Food businesses need more staffers and a steady supply chain.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A now hiring sign at a Salt Lake City fast food restaurant offers "up to $13 a hour" on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. Some eateries are paying even more.

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Utah restaurants and bars may be open for business and serving food and drinks, but the industry is hardly well.

“We are still kind of on life support,” Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said during a recent presentation. “We are in no way recovered.”

When the state did away with mandatory masks, occupancy limits and the other measures designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, restaurants technically were back in business, Sine told the state alcohol commission.

But things are not back to normal.

“We can’t do the things that we would normally do,” she said. “We can’t provide the quality of service.”

In 2020, Sine said, Utah’s food and beverage industry lost $2.3 billion in sales; 34,000 jobs and more than 400 eating establishments.

Before the industry can fully recover from that type of blow, it must overcome three main issues:

Restaurants need more employees

“As it is with many industries,” Sine said, “getting the employees that we need to offer the service that restaurant patrons are used to having, will continue to be our number one issue for some time.”

Eateries have boosted wages, but workers are still needed.

“Most food and beverage businesses are offering well above minimum wage,” Sine said. “You’re seeing $15 [an hour] starting wages and bonuses of $1,000 to $2,000 just to sign on. But we still have people who will interview for a job — and we think we’re going to hire them and open a new section of our restaurant or extend hours — and they don’t show up for their shift or take the job.”

Many owners are recognizing the need to take care of the staffers they do have, both emotionally and financially, which can result in shorter operating hours for consumers

For example, Ruth’s Diner announced earlier this week that the Emigration Canyon restaurant would be closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for the foreseeable future.

“We’re so sorry,” the owners wrote in their Facebook post. “This is the only way we’re able to give our service staff the days off and rest they deserve.”

Hoping to keep his current employees — as well as attract new workers — the owner of Salt Lake City’s Cucina wine bar and deli recently increased the starting minimum wage for kitchen staff to $15 an hour.

The move equaled a 12% to 25% raise, depending on the employee, said Dean Pierose, adding that his restaurant has weathered the pandemic better than most and it’s all because of his employees.

“By investing in our team members,” he said, “we are investing in the community and the future.”

Financial needs are overwhelming

Utah had 1,476 food business apply for the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which had $28.6 billion available on a first-come, first-served basis.

“Only 469 restaurants in the state were funded from that,” Sine said. " So we still have over a thousand restaurants in our state that still need financial assistance.”

(Brodi Ashton | For The Salt Lake Tribune) Bonniejean and Danny Brucks own Udder Rivals, which sells ice cream from the BYU and USU creameries.

Food supply remains a problem

“When the state ended health guidelines and mask mandates, we saw thousands of restaurants in the state basically open on the same day,” she said. “All of a sudden, availability became a real issue. These restaurants are changing their menus almost on a daily basis. A signature dish is almost nonexistent because you don’t know from day to day what kind of product you’re going to be able to receive.”

The list of hard-to-get products ranges from chicken wings, onion rings, cooking oil and tequila to cleaning supplies, plastic utensils, sparkling water and canned soda.

And, thanks to the law of supply and demand, when a restaurant can score one of these hard to get items it’s more expensive than before the pandemic. A cost that is often passed on to consumers.

“The cost of ice cream has gone up about 25%,” said Bonniejean Brucks, the co-owner of the Udder Rivals food truck, which sells ice cream from creameries at Brigham Young and Utah State universities. ”With the cost of gas also going up so significantly, I might be priced right out of business.”

Travis Bonino of Salsa Leedos Mexican Grill in Riverton said he ran into supply issues a few weeks ago, when he had several catered events, which totaled about 1,800 people.

“We could not get plastic eating utensils. I was in a total panic,” he said, adding that plastic bowls and other supplies have been difficult to find as well. “We have to figure out new items every week.”