[caption id="attachment_218774" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Delaware's restaurateurs are expecting a further return to normal in 2022 after a challenging 2021. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JAY WENNINGTON/UNSPLASH[/caption]
WILMINGTON — Delaware restaurateurs see 2022 as another year about recovery, between the rising food costs, the struggles to staff up, the continuing need for financial aid and yet another COVID-19 variant.
[caption id="attachment_213369" align="alignright" width="300"] Carrie Leishman | DBT PHOTO BY LUIGI CIUFFETELLI[/caption]
“God, 2021 was such a difficult year. The optimism was there, so was the demand. But we’ve had only more challenges with the variants,” Delaware Restaurant Association President and CEO Carrie Leishman said. “I do think the next year is really going to depend on what people learned in the last two years and adapt. It’s going to be recovery 2.0”That could range between doing more with less — the Delaware restaurant industry is still short about 4,000 employees, as of Dec. 21 — and cross-training staff, more robust take-out menus and lobbying hard to keep alcohol sales to-go along with outdoor dining.For Gianmarco Martuscelli, owner of Klondike Kate’s, La Casa Pasta, and the Chesapeake Inn in Maryland, the new year may just solidify what is the new cost of business. Minimum wage will rise to $10.50 an hour come Jan. 1, and coupled with the tight labor market and inflation on food costs, the added expenses will squeeze businesses.“The labor market is pretty bad right now, especially with the back-of-house staff. You have to be generous with pay, and you can’t have a chef and a dishwasher on the same pay,” Martuscelli said. With food, he said he’s ordered chicken breasts six to eight months out and have dishes varying in size. Crab meat alone has gone from $15 a pound to between $30 and $40.“Maybe the food costs and the supply chain will stabilize, but I’m not sure if prices will go back to what it was. How do you drive wages back down?” Martuscelli said. “People may just have to get used to the idea of paying $20 for a burger and not flinch at it.”The new year may be one of opportunities for Wilmington, as the city has been gaining notice for its food scene in Philadelphia food magazines. Bardea co-owner Scott Stein noted that downtown Wilmington had strong momentum until the pandemic, and it seemed to be returning.“The demand is back, and it’s not dropping off. It’s probably a culmination of hybrid work, visitors and people who just wanted to get out,” Stein said. “Things are probably going to start off slow, but then it’ll be roaring back.”
[caption id="attachment_214073" align="alignleft" width="200"] Tyler Akin, the chef-partner at Le Cavalier at the Green Room in Wilmington, is a leading voice lobbying Congress to add funds to aid restaurateurs. | PHOTO BY NEAL SANTOS COURTESY OF BPG[/caption]
With new attractions like Wilma’s, the upcoming boutique hotel on 519 N. Market St., and the opening of Le Cavalier, a French brasserie in Hotel Du Pont, there may be more to draw out young professionals and white-collar workers. Stein is also preparing for his next venture Bardea Steak, and has plans for Bardea Garden, an outdoor dining concept.“I love this town. I think it’s appalling to hear people say you have to go to the beach to find great cuisine or to Philly to see what’s trendy,” he said. “You can have a five-star experience here in Wilmington.”Meanwhile, chef Tyler Akin at Le Cav was cautiously optimistic about the year ahead, noting that the restaurant has opened up for longer hours and the bankruptcy courts have returned. But without additional funds in the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, he’s worried that many restaurants will have to close doors for good soon.“Only about one-third of the restaurants received funding, and that leaves an existential threat to restaurants,” Akin said. “That money can be used to shore up reserves, pay down debt or handle rent. We need the federal government to step up to see more restaurants get out of this, because it’s going to give us a better chance of survival.”
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