Local restaurateurs battered but hopeful

1285 Restobar co-owner Kurt Hargens and chef Jon Holden invite people to order take out from area restaurants.

‘Take out’ option is financial lifeline while shortages threaten food supply

April 29, 2020 — The COVID-19 crisis has changed the way that most Americans approach even the most familiar of activities. One of the cornerstones of human culture, eating, has been severely impacted by the pandemic and has been costly on many levels. The activity around food is central to what drives us individually, as families and as a society. It also generates billions of dollars of revenue each year, adding to the bottom line from small towns to America’s largest cities.

Plus, socializing on many levels revolves around the sharing of food. It is a core element of cultures around the globe, in America and certainly in Florence, where the economic component of the pandemic has had a devastating impact.

Florence is known as much for the variety of its dining sector as it is for its ocean, lakes and dunes, with hundreds of residents relying on work within the community’s many eating establishments.

Ordering meals “to-go” has not been banned by recent statewide executive orders limiting social contact and public gatherings, and the option provides a semblance of normalcy to a growing number of area residents.

Kurt Hargens is co-owner of 1285 Restobar on Bay Street in Historic Old Town Florence and said he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of meals he has served since the public became aware of the new attention being given to take-out options.

“We got off to a really great start for our first week of take-out orders. We are doing a limited menu of pizzas, calzones and chowder every day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Additionally, we are doing prime rib on Wednesday nights, lasagna on Thursday nights and spaghetti and meatballs on Friday nights,” Hargens said. “Our prime rib and lasagna nights have been particularly well received. The key is just having people call ahead and be a little patient when we are busy.”

1285 Restobar is one of the members of a loose coalition of local restaurants, the Florence Restaurant Alliance (FRA), that is trying to find a way to keep some staff working while feeding the community.

Elaine McMillan, co-owner of Homegrown Public House and Brewery, is one of the most active of the FRA members and has been staying connected with other local restaurant owners.

During the pandemic, McMillan has found that while many people have been dramatically impacted by closures, there is a sense that a return to business will happen for most — but not all of Florence’s eateries.

“I have to tell you, some of the conversations have been heartbreaking. I am so sad to hear what is happening to the local economy. I shed a few tears,” said McMillan. “I know, for us, it has been OK until this week and it’s been a struggle. To-go orders are not paying the bills and we are currently opening the brewery on Fridays for ‘Friday Fills.’ We have several things on tap, including our own brews.”

Homegrown is offering growlers as well, which includes the debut of new reusable growlers this week.

“The food operations at the brewery hope to restart in the next few weeks,” McMillan said. “We are in the middle of deep cleaning, painting and brewing some new brew. We have had a good turn out on Fridays, so we want to thank our hometown for the love.”

For the staff at Fresh Harvest Café, located at 3056 Highway 101, they wanted to thank the community for its support to this point in time and offered some inspiring words.

“Things have been challenging to say the least, but we have faith. The positive side of this is that our family has come together,” said Gilmar and Angela Ortiz. “Our goal is to keep doors open through this challenging time. We know many of our regular customers do not cook or have a stove, so we have been able to bless them with meals. We are here serving our community on a daily basis. We are grateful for the support we have come our way. “

For the past century, American farmers have increased the quantity and variety of food available to the American consumer, providing abundance at affordable prices, and with few limitations. In many ways, it has been a golden age of food production. Domestication of livestock and poultry has been maximized and the integration of organic concepts into the food supply chain is ongoing.

Spot shortages in the past decade of orange juice or peanut butter barely registered with the public and were quickly forgotten when the missing products reappeared.

That lack of appreciation surrounding food has changed considerably in the past 90 days. The inability to open business doors, coupled with the prospects of a long-term prohibition on restaurants from reopening for in-house dining, has shaken local restaurant owners and clientele alike.

The real potential of food shortages was recently brought home to many residents when shelves in local grocery stores were at times empty of staples like sugar and flour. Eating, transporting and distributing food — and the process that makes the almost unlimited access we have to food possible — is in jeopardy in a way rarely experienced by Americans.

The problem comes from multiple directions, as retail food suppliers, restaurants and processors of food products are in danger of being unable to adapt to a rapidly changing set of circumstances as they lose customers and workers to the pandemic.

Another uncertainty facing local restaurateurs is the possibility that the meat and vegetables needed to prepare menu items will simply be unavailable. Interruptions in the processing of meat, along with fields of rotting vegetables and tankers of unusable dairy, are potential realties according to processors and farmers.

There are a number of moving parts in the food equation which include planting, harvesting and processing on one side of the ledger, and the distribution and sales of those items on the other. The timing of both of these is subject to a number of factors, including weather, labor, transportation costs and the unpacking and placement of food in stores.

All of these factors must come together for a successful food supply chain to operate sustainably.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued updated guidelines for restaurants to deal properly with the COVID-19 virus. The FDA’s new “Best Practices” guide covers different aspects of safeguarding employees and the public, covering everything from food temperature controls to prevent spoilage and foodborne illness, to proper sanitation and operational guidelines aimed at limiting the potential for viral spread.

Perhaps most importantly, all of these guidelines require workers to implement each step in assuring both the continuity of the American food industry as well as the health of the American people — and all of these present new challenges under the shadow of the Covid-19 virus.

Agricultural workers, who are frequently seasonally employed from Mexico during crop cycles, have now been prevented from entering the United States. This ban comes in the form of new restrictions enacted by the federal administration for workers seeking entrance to the U.S. This includes an executive order signed this past Monday by President Donald Trump immediately suspending all immigration for an indefinite period of time.

The result is a situation where there is a shortage of workers who are needed to pick crops that are currently ripe and those that will ripen over the next few weeks and months.

Unfortunately, millions of tons of food have been destroyed in the weeks since state-imposed shutdowns went into effect in many states.

Specifics of the announced, but as yet unavailable order, are unknown as the Department of Homeland Security continues to crafting the order. The resulting uncertainty is putting farmers in a difficult predicament moving into the summer growing season.

In the March edition of Modern Farmer magazine, which has closely covered the developing agricultural dynamic, Don Nosowitz wrote about the potential problem finding workers to harvest this summer’s crops.

“Mexico supplies the vast majority of H-2A workers to the United States. Those H-2A workers have applied for and been granted temporary agricultural work visas, enabling them to legally work on American farms on a temporary basis,” Nosowitz wrote. “It’s a fundamental part of the American agricultural system; roughly 250,000 H-2A visas were granted in 2018, and the number of those visas has increased every year for over a decade.”

Nosowitz added that the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, which includes several large agricultural organizations like the National Farmers Union and the U.S. Apple Association, wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this past week urging the State Department to recognize H-2A workers as “essential” to ensure the American food supply.

An additional area of concern when discussing the evolving food paradigm is the central role processing plants play in the food chain.

A warning was issued last weekend from one of the major players in the food processing sector and the employer of thousands of workers that are now in danger of infection.

“The food supply chain is breaking,” Tyson Foods Board Chairman John Tyson wrote in a full-page advertisement published in the New York Times last Sunday. “There will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.”

In addition to meat shortages, Tyson pointed out that soon there will a serious food waste issue. Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock and poultry to be processed.

At Restobar, Hargens has already run into shortages of food items that he would normally use while preparing his menu. Due to the shift in focus to retail distribution, he is unable to obtain some ingredients.

“I received a call from one of my food suppliers saying that we would not be receiving some of the items we ordered because so many restaurants have closed that they have had to deliver more food to their retail customers [grocery stores] than before.” he said.

Millions of animals will be depopulated and destroyed because of the closure of processing facilities. That vast nutritional resource will be wasted at a time when food banks across the country are supporting record numbers of Americans.

The Tyson Company is the world’s second largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef and pork, and has had to close facilities due to plant contamination and lack of healthy workers.

Tyson went on to say his company has a responsibility to feed the nation and the world. Government bodies at the national, state, county and city levels must unite in a comprehensive, thoughtful and productive way.

“To allow our team members to work in safety without fear, panic or worry, the private and public sectors must come together. As a country, this is our time to show the world what we can do when working together,” Tyson wrote.

The owners of the Little Brown Hen Café, 435 Highway 101, Stacy and Mike Wilson, said “We are reopening for to-go orders on Friday (May 1). We will have a smaller menu, but we have many options,” she said. “We will be baking daily our customer favorites, and we will be adding some new items that will be easy to transport.”

The café’s hours starting Friday will be 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Printed to-go menus will be ready to hand out to customers.

“We love our customers, and we are grateful to be back at work,” the Wilsons said.

They encouraged people to call ahead for take-out orders and thanked them for their support.

For an up to date listing of the restaurants open, see the Florence Area Chamber of Commerce at florencechamber.com.

 

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