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Nevada Restaurants Face Struggle To Get Past Pandemic, Find Workers

(AP Photo/John Locher)
(AP Photo/John Locher)

People make preparations for reopening at Vesta Coffee Roasters, Friday, May 8, 2020, in Las Vegas.

Fewer industries got hit harder by the pandemic than restaurants.

In 2020, sales nationally were nearly $250 billion below projections, 2.5 million workers lost jobs, and more than 100,000 restaurants and taverns closed.

In hospitality-dependent Nevada, it’s feared that more than one-third of all restaurants have closed for good.

Alexandria Dazlich, director of government and public relations for the Nevada Restaurant Association, said the reopening of the economy is the only way to prevent more damage to the industry.

“There have been some instances of restaurants reopening, which is encouraging, however, the overall status of the industry remains dire," she said, "In order for restaurants to begin to make a real recovery, they need to be operating at 100 percent capacity and the vast majority of restaurants that have been hit are small independent businesses.”

She told State of Nevada that many restaurants pivoted to curbside pickup and delivery during the pandemic but that did not compensate for what they lost because of limited capacity for dine-in.

Kris Parikh is the owner of Mint Indian Bistros. He said of his four restaurants the off-Strip properties did okay, but the Strip properties suffered. 

“Strip locations were pretty bad. They seem to come back, at the moment, but it is not anywhere close to what we used to be,” he said.

Parikh opened his restaurant on the Strip near the Encore in December 2019. Business was looking good, but it started to slow down in March when the virus started spreading around the world.

“It was very, very scary at the time, but it got scarier when we had the lockdown that was mandated by the state, and there was no traffic on the Strip,” he said.

He was able to get help from his creditors and landlords to stay afloat, but he said the real booster shot was federal relief dollars.

One of the biggest problems for Parikh’s business is Indian food relies heavily on buffets because a lot of diners don’t know what the dishes look like. But with social distancing and sanitation rules, buffets were difficult to operate.

“When we opened up back in June, we said, ‘We have to be creative,’ and we ended up putting some curtains around the buffet, and we have our servers serving from behind this transparent curtain, so the customers can see it,” he said.

Lori Baxter runs the Bella Vita Bistro in Carson City, and she also had to get creative when the pandemic hit.

Several years ago, she created a lunch delivery service that had developed a very loyal following.

“We were affected very badly because a lot of places that we deliver to were state offices that were closed, but we found lots of other places to go to, and they were unbelievably generous,” she said.

Some places they delivered to didn’t even ask what was available in the lunch basket, they would just buy the whole thing as a way to help.

Other people donated money to Baxter’s restaurant so they could help feed people impacted by the pandemic.

“We feel really blessed,” she said, “People would come out and do curbside dining. All the same people that would normally come in on a Friday night to listen to live music would line up with their cars and pick up the same foods that they would order inside the restaurant.”

While that helped, business is still down dramatically from years past, and Baxter’s catering business was down to almost nothing when events were canceled last year.

In addition, restaurants like hers depend on business from legislators, lobbyists and those visiting the Legislature, during the legislative session. Since the building was closed to the public for most of the session and legislators stayed mostly in the building, restaurants in the state capital have suffered.

Baxter is feeling a little optimistic as things start to reopen.

“I have a tremendous amount of caterings now on the books because about 90 percent of the caterings that we had to cancel last year rescheduled for this year,” she said.

However, for restaurants that don’t have the extra revenue stream, she is worried that the year ahead will be very difficult.

The biggest problem right now for all restaurants is staffing, said Dazlich.

“We’ve seen a big decrease in our workforce, which has been really difficult for a lot of our operators to ramp up operations,” she said.

Both Parikh and Baxter agreed.

“It’s been absolutely horrible,” Baxter said, “Many of my restaurant friends have had to close down for either lunches or dinners because they can’t find help. They literally cannot find anybody that wants to work anymore.”

Baxter was looking for someone to be a bartender and server. She had 25 applications but only two people showed up to be interviewed. She ended up hiring them both but neither of them showed up for work and didn’t call to explain why.

Parikh has had similar experiences. He has put out ads to hire workers, received applications but only a handful show up for interviews, and those who are hired, often don’t show up for work.

“There are a lot of openings, so the current workforce is actually moving from one job to another and that is also creating an issue for us for off-the-Strip locations,” he said.

Alexandria Dazlich, director of government and public relations, Nevada Restaurant Association;  Kris Parikh, owner, Mint Indian Bistros;  Lori Baxter, owner, Bella Vita Bistro in Carson City

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With deep experience in journalism, politics, and the nonprofit sector, news producer Doug Puppel has built strong connections statewide that benefit the Nevada Public Radio audience.