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Restaurants have had a rough start to 2022 so far

January isn't really expected to be the best month for sales at bars and restaurants, but it's not supposed to be this bad. 

Blame omicron. The rising number of COVID-19 cases are not only making people want to go out less, but it's creating an already fragile staffing situation for restaurants because so many people have been out sick with the virus, or weren't sick but tested positive and had to stay home anyway.

According to survey findings released by the Michigan Restaurant Lodging Association this week, 76% of restaurant operators across the country and in Michigan said that business conditions are worse now than three months ago, and 86% of restaurants experienced a decline in customer demand for indoor on-premises dining because of the variant. 

Since restaurants were allowed to open to full capacity in Michigan in 2021, I've seen many of them continue to not fill the entire dining room or keep truncated hours because of a lack of staffing. January was particularly harsh, though. Nearly every day this month I've seen at least one restaurant post to social media announcing that they were unexpectedly not opening that day, or keeping shorter hours due to not having enough employees to run the ship. 

The MRLA data supports my observation. Statewide, 61% of restaurants surveyed said they reduced hours of operation and 44% closed on days it would be open under normal circumstances. About a third reduced seating capacity. The findings were part of a National Restaurant Association survey of 4,200 restaurant operators conducted Jan. 6-18.

"Through the holiday season in the fall and winter, it was the amount of staff that dictated our hours, not necessarily sales or foot traffic," said Timothy Tharp, owner of Grand Trunk Pub and Checker Bar in downtown Detroit and co-founder of the Detroit Restaurant and Lodging Association.

"Our biggest struggle was to hire people, and all of a sudden this new surge hits, the holidays are over, we fell off a cliff. I think anyone who’s in the restaurant industry knows there’s the Jan.  1 cliff where sales just go so low," he said, adding that in downtown Detroit for many years restaurants were able to get a post-holiday boost from the North American International Auto Show, which hasn't been in January since 2019. 

"This cliff in January is really harsh for downtown businesses. Office workers are still at home. Sporting events are getting canceled," he said. 

The Metro Detroit dining scene has already seen some major closings in 2022 so far, from nationally known restaurants like Michael Symon's Roast, which closed unexpectedly Jan. 9, to neighborhood favorites like Detroit Vegan Soul.

Owners of the latter announced on social media that the original location in Detroit's West Village, which was temporarily closed, would not reopen. Their Grand River location of Detroit Vegan Soul extended its winter break, and won't reopen until April, they said. 

In Oak Park, new hot spot Pink Garlic has no trouble getting customers, who have swarmed the carryout-only restaurant since it opened in the fall. This week, owners had to make the tough decision to cut back on lunchtime hours due to a lack of staff, they said. Pink Garlic will open at 3 p.m. instead of 11:30 a.m. until further notice.

I expect that we'll see more closings from a variety of restaurants, both permanently and temporarily as the winter marches on, but there is light at the end of the tunnel for these businesses.

Last week there was a reported "slight drop" in COVID-related hospitalizations. Next month is Valentine's Day, offering restaurants a chance for top sales that whole weekend, plus Monday, Feb. 14. A few months more, and the weather will be warmer making outdoor dining easier again. 

Tharp is also optimistic. 

"I think this is the virus' last hurrah," he said. "I think those who do survive are going to come out stronger and I think in the spring there's going to be a real taste in the public to get out ... I just hope that those who still have open doors can survive this winter because it’s going be super hard. There’s so many things working against us right now."

Twitter: @melodybaetens