Metro East Restaurants Fret About What’s To Come As They Wait For Illinois' Economy To Reopen
BELLEVILLE — Illinois residents face at least another month of strict social distancing before the state’s economy will start to open up — later than other parts of the St. Louis region.
At the very least, it will be another tricky four weeks for restaurants and other eateries in the Metro East that had to abruptly pivot because of the pandemic.
“At present, we’re down 25% to 30% on any given day. Some days more, some days less,” said Mary Kruta, who manages Kruta’s Bakery in Collinsville.
The bakery was on track for a good year of sales before the pandemic hit, coming off its 100th anniversary last year, she said. It could be worse for Kruta. She said some restaurants in the city have closed up shop even if they can stay open under Gov. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.
“A few of them in Collinsville have just voluntarily closed completely; they’re no longer doing curbside or delivery,” Kruta said. “Everyone is furloughed because they just couldn’t figure out day to day how to handle it.”
Like Kruta’s, restaurants and other food establishments in the region were doing brisk business early in the year.
“Already we were having a good January and February,” said Tyler Vitale, owner of the Weingarten in Belleville. “2020 was starting off pretty nice for us.”
And that was before the property opens in earnest for the busy season between March and November, he said. The Weingarten had about two weeks of normal business — live music, the full lunch and dinner menu, planning for weddings and other private events that were scheduled — before the stay-at-home order shuttered the core of the business, Vitale said.
“In the last five weeks, we’ve seen our share of canceled events, where deposits are then going back to clients,” he said. “When money is moving in the wrong direction, it’s a pretty scary thing, especially when we knew that social gatherings weren’t going to be permissible above 50 until at least mid-May.”
The Weingarten had to initially furlough between 35 and 45 part-time staff members when Vitale realized the shutdown was going to last much longer than two weeks, he said. Vitale is able to bring some of those staff members back to work because he received a Paycheck Protection Program loan this week.
There are a few places that have found ways to thrive during this pandemic. Lizzie Bob’s Bakery in Fairview Heights is one of them. The bakery is on track to slightly exceed its 2020 goal for revenue, said Elizabeth Toepfer, who owns the business.
Toepfer attributes her success in part to her decision to add online ordering and payment as an option for her customers.
“Ecommerce was always on my mind from the very beginning. We put that in place two years ago knowing that maybe eventually we could get it going,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic to get that to happen.”
Shifting to carryout or delivery wasn’t difficult for Toepfer because the bakery already offered those options.
“It was just getting people to realize they can order online through our ecommerce, which had been set up for many years but wasn’t getting used that often,” she said.
The city of Fairview Heights has also been helpful in driving business to Toepfer’s bakery during the pandemic, she said. The city had launched a website and phone application that was originally designed to pull people from around the area to the city’s retail hub.
The app’s strategy shifted to supporting local businesses, particularly restaurants, during the coronavirus shutdown, said Tom Faulkner, chief creative officer at the Fource Group, the marketing and advertising firm running the website and app.
Faulkner explained that the app now promotes new business hours and people’s ability to order online or ahead for restaurants and eateries across the city across social media.
“From our conversations with the restaurants, they feel like this really is helping them,” he said. “In particular, some of the locally owned ones who don’t have marketing budgets.”
This solution isn’t a cure for every establishment through the pandemic, Toepfer said.
“I know a lot of businesses are suffering either with getting supplies or not being able to pay staff,” she said. “It’s unfortunate because there are so many great restaurants here in Fairview.”
Difficult to come back
In the beginning of 2020, consumer confidence was high and people felt comfortable with the economy, said Peter Boumgarden, professor of strategy and organization at Washington University’s Olin School of Business.
“The share of people’s budget that goes to eating out versus towards groceries had slowly been tipping up and maybe even moving into the side of people spending more out to eat,” he said.
Even when places are allowed to re-open to the public in Illinois and other states, the level of spending before the pandemic won’t immediately return because consumer confidence won’t be the same, Boumgarden said.
“For many people, when the confidence dips, you just start to tighten the belt a little more in certain categories,” he said. “A shift to groceries over going out to eat can be one of those pieces that you can save some money.”
And on top of that, many people may be concerned about going to restaurants or other establishments that rely on social gathering to some extent, Boumgarden said. Vitale shares that concern.
“When is it going to be all right for us to get a large group of people out?” Vitale said. “Do we operate for dine-in service? Or do we have to close that day and be open for a private event only? It costs a lot to keep the lights on either way.”
The uncertainty about how many people will resume dining out when more eateries are allowed to reopen is compounded for restaurants because they buy items that can spoil — and often in bulk, Kruta said.
“How do we prepare for that? How much do we bake?” she said. “How much fresh meat? How much do they buy knowing I may have to sit on this? I might have to count this as a loss.”
Unfortunately, some establishments in the Metro East and St. Louis region will not survive this pandemic, Kruta added.
“If you were already struggling as a business, this will probably be the death,” she said. “You will not be able to recover from it.”
The road back to prosperity or profitability won’t be a smooth one for those that are able to stay in business when everything settles.
“No matter what, we will have to make some changes; there is no going back to that normal,” Vitale said. “Everyone knows that.”
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