TAMPA, Fla. — According to a local Tampa Bay area franchise owner, fast-casual restaurants like Firehouse Subs never slowed down during the pandemic.
Sarju Patel said they closed their dining room during the March 2020 lockdowns but was positioned better than most to shift to online carryout and to-go orders.
"We kept going, man, we've been non-stop since this started," Patel, the owner of 7 franchises in the Bay area, told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska. "Firehouse as a brand a company it's been doing very well.
We visited Patel at his Carrollwood location on Dale Mabry during a regional job fair. We were hoping to interview a new applicant. But, what Patel told us about the job market became abundantly clear… no one showed up.
"You know it's been tough trying to hire people in this market and this environment," Patel said. "We have been putting signs up on the window and talk to current employees to see if they have referrals and also now the social media stuff we've been advertising through indeed all the other companies that do the recruiting and on Craigslist too. We are hiring for crew members shift leaders managers, any position at all, we are hiring for."
As more and more people get vaccinated, the restaurant industry is positioning itself to prepare for more people dining out.
"Many of our operators are reporting that they are back in the 80% range since their pre-COVID numbers," Geoff Luebkemann, Senior Vice President at the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said.
Luebkemann said the issue Patel faces is an industry-wide problem.
"One of the things we are struggling with right now, though, is staffing. We are competing with unemployment checks that in some cases incentivize people to stay home which is not a good thing," Luebkemann said.
A rebound for the restaurant industry is a long way off.
The impact on the industry from the 2021 National Restaurant Association's State of the Industry Report is grim.
"Restaurant and foodservice industry sales fell by $240 billion in 2020 from an expected level of $899 billion. As of December 1, 2020, more than 110,000 eating and drinking places were closed for business temporarily or for good. The eating and drinking place sector finished 2020 nearly 2.5 million jobs below its pre-coronavirus level," according to the report.
At last check, a representative with Firehouse Subs said they hired five people during the job fair. All 26 area restaurants are still accepting applications for the remaining openings.
Patel said anyone worried about having a stable job at his stores shouldn't be.
"We didn't lay off anybody at all. It was great," Patel said. "The brand is really strong our food is great, and the fact is its heartfelt service. The public safety foundation that gives back to the community is amazing."
"The Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation donated more than $1.2 million to first responders in greater Tampa and more than $8.6 million in Florida," EmmaJean Livingston, the Manager of Public Relations, said.
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