Shawn Van Pelt, owner of Cool Hand Luke's Steakhouse in Santa Maria, added 150 outdoor seats to his restaurant to accommodate pandemic restrictions this past year. Given the time and resources he poured into the addition, Van Pelt said he would like to keep filling these seats, especially with the economy opening up again.
- Photo Courtesy Of Cool Hand Luke's Facebook Page
- NEW CHALLENGES Cool Hand Luke's Steakhouse has locations in both Santa Maria and Paso Robles. Shawn Van Pelt, owner of the Santa Maria location, said staffing is his biggest challenge right now.
But he's running into a new hurdle: staffing.
"Unfortunately, right now, I only open it for lunch on Saturday and Sunday," Van Pelt said of the outdoor seating area. "Only because I can't staff it and staff the whole restaurant also."
Van Pelt said his staffing levels are actually close to what he had before the pandemic. He still has about 90 percent of his crew. But the demand for in-restaurant dining, he said, is at an all-time high.
"The challenge today is volume—which is good, we're busy," Van Pelt said. "But the challenge is staffing enough employees. ... With the volume we're doing, I need to be at 150 percent of what I was pre-COVID."
In his 25 years in the industry, Van Pelt said right now is the hardest it's ever been for him to find workers.
"Every restaurant is in the same boat. All my vendors are in the same boat," Van Pelt said. "The demand has gone up for volume, and they have no staff."
Cool Hand Luke's isn't alone: SLO Chamber of Commerce CEO Jim Dantona and Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Glenn Morris both said that staffing is the main struggle they're hearing about from local restaurants.
"They're starting to get customers back, and people are excited to get back out and go to restaurants again," Morris said. "But what the headwinds are, a lot of it tends to be around staffing. It's just taking longer to rebuild the workforce, get people back and trained. ... One of the impacts of that we're seeing right now is, restaurants that maybe were open six or seven days a week pre-pandemic are open for five right now."
Luckily, restaurants in particular have some new resources at their disposal, such as the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which Congress passed as part of the American Rescue Plan Act. The program provides restaurants with funding equal to their pandemic-related revenue losses, up to $10 million per business, with no requirement to repay the funds as long as they're used by March 2023, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration's (SBA) website.
Van Pelt said his restaurant is applying for the fund.
U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) voted in support of the relief package and said the Restaurant Revitalization Fund prioritizes small, locally owned food and drink establishments by processing their applications first this time.
"I think they learned from the initial CARES package, where we had a rush of bigger companies, and a lot of the smaller mom-and-pop businesses, of which most of these restaurants are, sort of got in later on," he said. "So [the Restaurant Revitalization Fund] prioritizes smaller, disadvantaged businesses first ... that are the majority of the restaurants throughout the country."
After all the new loan and grant programs offered to businesses over the last year, such as the widely utilized Paycheck Protection Program, Santa Maria Chamber CEO Morris said requests for application assistance have waned.
"Everybody's gotten much better at filling these forms out. ... If you look back a year ago, we were getting more calls from folks on, 'How does this work?' or, 'What do I need to do?'" Morris recalled. "There was just a lot of unfamiliarity and a little bit of nervousness, I think, early on. ... I think folks have gotten past all of that, and that's a new skill developed."
The San Luis Obispo SCORE Chapter, which offers free business consulting in SLO County and the Santa Maria Valley, has assisted hundreds of local businesses with applying for aid programs throughout the pandemic.
When federal funding packages were first passed, "we began receiving requests for help from businesses because they did not fully understand the CARES Act opportunities available," Chapter Chair Horace Morana said in an email. "At that point in time the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program were changing literally on a daily, if not hour-to-hour, basis. ... We modified our client support system so that [our SCORE mentors] were able [to] provide our clients the information they desperately needed."
Since March 2020, Morana said SCORE SLO has helped more than 400 clients through workshops focusing on SBA loans and has mentored more than 100 clients asking for loan advice. Now, SCORE is mentoring a handful of clients as they navigate the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
Carbajal said programs like the Restaurant Revitalization Fund are particularly important for rebuilding the Central Coast economy, given the prominence of the hospitality industry here.
"The restaurant businesses were one of the hardest hit sectors in our country and on the Central Coast," Carbajal said. "What this does is it allows them to stay afloat and recoup a lot of the expenses that they had to incur to have outdoor dining, to have delivery and takeout services. ... So this is absolutely essential to help an industry that has been devastated."
And it's not just restaurants that are eligible to apply: food stands, food trucks, caterers, bars, and some bakeries, tasting rooms, breweries, wineries, and inns can apply too, with certain stipulations.
"The flexibility and broadness of what is included is really going to go a long way to help stabilize the restaurant businesses throughout the country and on the Central Coast," Carbajal said.
While Cool Hand Luke's owner Van Pelt said there's a ways to go until restaurants reach the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, he knows from experience that the ones who get through will emerge more resilient.
"In the restaurant business over the last 80 to 100 years, it's a roller coaster," Van Pelt said. "The ones who make it and keep changing ... they make it through, and they're stronger." Δ
Malea Martin is a staff writer at New Times' sister paper, the Santa Maria Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com.