Island restaurants optimistic about upcoming season

PHOTO BY KAILA JONES

Local restaurateurs this fall are looking forward to a busy upcoming season as they (hopefully) leave behind the roller coaster ride the pandemic has taken them on since March 2020.

A lack of diners isn’t the issue on Vero’s barrier island and downtown. Things are going pretty well compared to what is happening in the rest of the country. In addition to rising costs for products, lack of staffing and supply difficulties, many out-of-state restaurants face challenges posed by vaccine mandates for staff and patrons.

Not so here.

But like businesses nationwide, short-staffed local restaurants are finding job applicants hard to come by.

On Sept. 6 – Labor Day, ironically – supplemental federal unemployment benefits under the CARES Act that carried millions of people through the pandemic were halted, but local restaurants haven’t seen the increase in job applicants one might have expected after those payments ran dry.

Maison Martinique manager Colleen Carr says she isn’t surprised that she and Chef Daniel Wise haven’t seen an influx in applications. Many restaurant workers, she said, are pursuing new opportunities outside the hospitality industry, or have moved because of a lack of affordable housing in this area.

“The Vero housing costs have priced the service people out of the market,” Carr said.

Instead of reducing hours due to lack of staff, Carr says the restaurant has expanded services and hours, used the hotel’s space better and changed the style of music to appeal to a broader audience. Guests and locals can now enjoy breakfast at the Crêperie or visit the Shell Lounge for happy hour.

At Citrus, chef-owner Scott Varricchio says most of his applicants for open positions don’t have restaurant experience; and if he does contact them for an interview, they don’t show up. For now, he is open six days a week so that he doesn’t “run the crew into the ground,” but he’s hopeful he will be able to open seven days a week during season.

While getting certain food items has been challenging, Varricchio has altered his menu to match availability and upped his wine selection significantly. Navigating cost increases adds another layer to the problem. Everything from shellfish to skirt steak has gone through the roof, with crab more than doubling in price, he said.

“The cost of gloves is the most unfair. It went from $30 to $180 a case and we are using six times more gloves now. That’s $100,000 a year in glove costs alone,” he added.

Fortunately, patrons are visiting the restaurant more often and running up bigger tabs, said Varricchio. “I see some couples four times a week, and my check average has gone up. Not because I’ve raised prices. People are eating and drinking at a higher level now.”

Ocean Grill general manager Joey Replogle chose to close on Mondays this summer to mitigate staffing shortages and found his restaurant didn’t lose any business. It just made the rest of the weekdays a lot busier. “From June until school started, it was the busiest summer we’ve had,” he said.

At The Tides, chef-owner Leanne Kelleher didn’t have any staffing issues when she re-opened after lockdown. Her longtime staff stayed the course, which she attributes to treating her team well, offering paid vacations, benefits and 401Ks. “I care about them, and they care about me,” she said, gratefully.

Noting the increase in product costs, Kelleher says, “Supply issues are very real. The prices that I’m paying for stuff coming in the back door are, in some cases, absurd. I haven’t raised my prices. It’s cutting into my margins for the moment, but it’s a short-term pain for long-term gain.”

Things are certainly booming, she said, with holiday party bookings through the end of the year. She says that Christmas and New Year’s Eve dining have already sold out.

Looking forward to a good season, Citron Bistro owner Jay McLaughlin said he has changed the menu a bit, adding several salads and entrees. Citron also is playing to a strong Sunday brunch and dinner crowd, and by pricing fish products according to the new-normal market conditions.

Dario Bordoli, proprietor of Trattoria Dario, said 2021 has been the best summer he’s had in a long time. Addressing staffing challenges, he is closing the kitchen at 10 p.m. almost every night, but is hoping to add enough personnel to return to an 11 p.m. or 12 p.m. closing.

“I’ve never needed to run an ad before. Two of six candidates call back to set up an appointment but never show up. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Bordoli.

He has also had difficulty procuring everything from liquor to meat. Instead of increasing prices, Bordoli has changed the menu. “Sometimes, you just have to take the loss. I’m not here just for today and tomorrow. I’m here to stay. I haven’t changed my menu prices in over two years.”

DiMare chef-owner Jean Zana said after a steady stream of summer clientele, he will be returning to pre-pandemic seasonal hours. “We were crazy until the end of July. We were not expecting that. A lot of people are coming back in October, so I’m expecting it to be busy in October,” he said.

While fresh seafood has been challenging to get and the prices have significantly increased, Zana said he can still find what he needs with some effort. “Things are getting very expen-sive. We’re trying to stay with the same menu because people are used to certain items,” he said.

Pomodoro Grill head chef Amedeo Amelio never had to advertise job openings before the pandemic. In the past, people just showed up with resumes in hand. That hasn’t happened yet this year. Turnover has also been an issue, as many of the people he has hired, primarily dishwashers, have come in, worked for a few days and then disappeared.

With the influx of new residents, Amelio has opted to send out a direct-mail flyer in hopes of reaching a new client base. “We haven’t done anything like that in years,” he said.

“We’ve definitely experienced the ups and downs of the staffing challenges over the past year and a half,” said Costa d’Este General Manager Chad Olson. “I can’t honestly say that we’re out of that staffing crisis that everybody else has been feeling, but we’re status quo.”

Back to pre-pandemic staff levels now, Olson said they offered referral incentives to existing staff. Involving the staff in bringing on new employees has been very successful because they appreciate the culture at Costa d’Este, he said, making it an “easy sell to get friends and families in here.”

According to Olson, the hotel is taking a conservative approach in consideration of items he anticipates may still be in short supply as they plan for the upcoming holidays. “People are already booking holiday parties. December looks like it’s going to be an extremely busy month for holiday events.”

Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel and Spa’s Director of Food and Beverage Marco Fanelli said staffing issues have improved recently, partly because the hotel has boosted wages and offered a $1,000 sign-on and retention bonus for culinary positions.

“That’s been very beneficial for us to get a lot more candidates. We have more staff now than we had pre-COVID in food and beverage,” Fanelli said.

Not wanting to increase the pricing on menu items, Fanelli said the hotel is rolling out a new fall menu at Cobalt and expanding offerings.

Noting the restaurant has had a banner year, he is seeing bookings for the holidays earlier than usual and expects to sell out. “It’s been a weird year, and everyone I talk with in the industry across the country says that we’re really the only ones in this situation. It’s a good time to be in Florida,” he adds.

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