OC restaurant owners and operations find mixed bag after reopening last week

(June 19, 2020) Indoor dining brought both blessings and challenges this past weekend, as restaurateurs were ecstatic to serve guests in a somewhat normal capacity, but struggle to do so as staffing continues to be in low supply. 

“Everyone was thrilled to be able to open with some indoor dining,” said Susan Jones, Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association executive director. “[The] town was certainly busy, so staffing remains an enormous challenge.” 

Eastbound traffic on Route 50 and the bridge was at a standstill most of Saturday, and at one point extended to the Blue Heron Shopping Center in West Ocean City, or about 3.6 miles from the downtown entry point into the resort. 

The beach and Boardwalk were packed, with little room to spare for social distancing and facemasks again a rare sight — although facial coverings remain optional in outdoor public spaces. 

For businesses, particularly those with no or little outdoor dining space, the heavy crowds were a godsend, although sales for some remain incomparable to past years. 

“We were very busy, very busy,” John VanFossen, owner of Assateague Crab House in West Ocean City, said. 

VanFossen’s small, family-owned restaurant has been closed since last summer, as the cost of opening partially with outdoor dining outweighed the revenue. 

With Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement last Wednesday reopening indoor dining at 50 percent capacity, however, VanFossen was able to open for service this summer, and satisfy residents’ and visitors’ seafood cravings.  

Phillips Crab House on North Philadelphia Avenue was also excited to reopen, as it too did not have outdoor seating available. 

“It was very exciting,” Michelle Torres, Phillips’ corporate director of marketing and business development, said. “We were packed the entire weekend.” 

Torres said guests were excited to enjoy meals indoors again — an act they were barred from doing for the last four months or so. 

Kyler Taustin, manager and co-owner of BLU Crab House, agreed, and said everyone was thrilled to dine indoors and worked with the restaurant to ensure operations ran smoothly. 

Taustin said BLU has always been 80 percent outdoor seating, so with the reopening of indoor dining plus additional outdoor seating in the parking lot, the restaurant has managed to maintain its normal capacity, even with social distancing protocols.

Nonetheless, not all restaurants have outdoor space to capitalize on, as sales climbed, but did not soar.

VanFossen and Jeb Vetock, general manager of Harrison’s Harbor Watch restaurant on the Boardwalk, reported sales at 50 percent, give or take, compared to normal weekends, while Phillips saw 37 percent of its usual sales. 

Restaurants such as BLU and Phillips faced an additional challenge, as the two entities were not able to offer a key component of their respective dining experiences: buffets.

VanFossen lamented his inability to continue “all-you-can-eat” services, which has been a main draw for many of his customers.

On the upside, most customers continue to follow indoor dining social distancing and face covering guidelines.

“There were some instances where people just were not aware, or thought it was necessary to take it to the extreme … they just didn’t think that you needed a mask or it was necessary to social distance,” Torres said. 

She said some customers would come in and request tables to be put together for parties larger than six. 

Under Hogan’s order no more than six are allowed at a table. 

“We received multiple calls a day and multiple groups that just walked up expecting it to be business as usual,” Torres said, but noted that the groups were quick to comply once the regulations were explained. 

Capacity limits, service restrictions and guideline ignorance aside, what remains the greatest challenge for restaurant owners and operations is staffing, or the lack thereof. 

VanFossen, like many other small business owners, has had to rely largely on his immediate family to run his restaurant, and said he was in the kitchen all weekend. 

Vetock said his usual team of 11 line cooks had been reduced to just two.

“Staffing is going to be a tremendous hurdle,” Vetock said. 

The staffing conundrum has been attributed to several factors, such as unemployment benefits that pay more than seasonal jobs and covid-19’s impact on the J-1 student program, which makes up a sizeable chunk of the resort’s seasonal workforce. 

Torres said Phillips, which is currently on a modified schedule, is OK for now, but would need more employees once it moves to its regular schedule.

However, what Torres said highlights an overarching problem that staffing problems pose for local dining establishments: limited workforce equals limited hours of operation. 

Assateague Crab House, for instance, is currently open weekends only.

The worker shortage also presents operators with a complex paradox — in order to generate more revenue, restaurant owners must hire more staff to handle more customers, but in order to hire more staff to handle more customers more revenue must be generated. 

As the season progresses, staffing will likely continue to be a great obstacle for restaurateurs and management, but what seems to be a commonality among Torres, Vetock, VanFossen and Taustin is a strong sense of optimism, persistence and flexibility to change. 

“We’re happy to be part of a family resort and it’s definitely a challenging summer right now, but we’re always ready to welcome guests whenever they come to our beach and give everybody a good experience and welcome them to our business,” Vetock said. 

Josh covers everything Ocean City government and crime. He graduated from the University of Richmond in 2019 with a B.A. in French and Journalism.

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