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Sept. 20, 2021

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Clark County restaurants are halfway home

50% indoor capacity begins for eateries, but challenges remain

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
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Customers dine at La Provence Vancouver's socially distanced dining area as lunch is served Thursday afternoon.
Customers dine at La Provence Vancouver's socially distanced dining area as lunch is served Thursday afternoon. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Clark County restaurants will be open to 50 percent indoor capacity today, and while it’s a welcomed step for owners and managers, it’s not all a cause for celebration.

The list of issues seems to be growing: Ingredient prices are higher and still increasing, staffing is generally difficult to find, the 6-foot social distancing rule limits building capacity, and there still isn’t a sense of when the restaurants will be able to move into the next phases, so planning is problematic.

Seth Laub, regional director for La Provence, a new restaurant in east Vancouver, said that with social distancing, moving from 25 to 50 percent doesn’t mean that twice the number of guests are allowed inside because they can’t be 6 feet apart. It’s a common complaint that restaurateurs have been making since Gov. Jay Inslee introduced the phase system.

“That’s the most surprising thing we’re realizing,” he said.

La Provence, 17719 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd., cooks all its French culinary food and bakes all its bread and desserts in-house. It’s hired a staff of about 60 since it opened in September, and it’s still hiring new employees because of the announcement to advance to Phase 3.

Laub said he’s keeping track of any announcements by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because reports say the CDC could announce that restaurants only need to distance people 3 feet apart indoors.

With restaurants gearing up for the extra customer volume, food, ingredient and material prices are going up, Laub said.

“Pretty much across the board, the price of things have gone up,” he said.

Main Event co-owner Jason Fish said the cost of a case of gloves is about $180, up from $60.

Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, said those price increases are mostly temporary because of a sudden increase in demand, and it will level out. It’s the opposite of when restaurants first experienced a shutdown last year, and they had to give away or throw out a bunch of food.

The market for restaurant labor is changing, too, and local restaurants can’t find qualified help to meet their needs and their expectations.

“We’re in a hiring pinch,” said Fish. “Nobody can get help right now. Front of house. Back of house. We’ve never had to put out ads.”

Many of the applicants that Fish received are unqualified with no experience, and Fish suspects it’s only because people need to prove they’re applying for jobs to stay eligible for unemployment insurance.

Beaches owner Mark Matthias is having a similar issue with staffing and recently hired six more workers.

Matthias is one of the most outspoken members of a local restaurateur group called Restaurant Roundtable, which has become almost a lobbying group for the industry. The group frequently writes letters to Inslee’s office to advocate for restaurants.

Matthias said that the state’s guidance for the next phases of reopening are unclear, causing him to have a hard time planning for hiring more staff and bringing back more ingredients.

“The thing we really stressed is to give us guidance now as to 75 and 100 percent,” he said, referring to a recent letter to the governor’s office. “We asked them to set metrics so at least we can do planning. It’s almost impossible to plan for staffing. Once they tell us we can reopen, we scramble to get people hired.”

Matthias said it takes almost a month to find, interview, hire and train a new employee.

“It’s very difficult to operate,” he said.

On the upside of reopening, restaurants are seeing and expecting more business as the weather warms. In addition, the cost of propane isn’t as high because it’s not as cold.

“We were going through $500 of propane a week,” said Fish, who is now using the outdoor seating at both Main Event locations for overflow. The east-side Main Event will take down its tent soon because people are sick of sitting in tents, he said.

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