When June 15 arrived in Long Beach, it seemed as if the whole city could collectively breathe a sigh of relief.
The city had lifted most restrictions limiting indoor and outdoor gatherings and capacity, which meant restaurants and other businesses hampered by those limitations could finally resume at full force. It seemed all would be okay.
But not two weeks later, two popular and locally cherished Bixby Knolls restaurants announced they would close for good. The first, on June 28, was Bixby’s Brooklyn Deli, a classic Jewish deli next to the outdoor dining space, The Allery.
Two days later, George’s Place, a near 20-year-old Greek and American diner—a local institution—also bid farewell.
“It was a double whammy,” said Blair Cohn, president of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association.
The loss of both restaurants served as painful symbols of the toll the COVID-19 pandemic wrought on business and a sharp reminder that the city is still far from returning to pre-pandemic bliss.
“A lot of us thought that as soon as the restrictions were lifted that things would go back to normal. But it wasn’t so,” said Miguel Perez, owner of MeeMa’s which is next door to what was Brooklyn Deli. “It’s been one thing after another.”
At the outset of the pandemic, Cohn said he and his team at the BKBIA knew there were going to be casualties. There were a handful of businesses, he said, that almost immediately decided to call it quits. Others, he said, tried to tread water but caved shortly after.
Now, Cohn said, Bixby Knolls is still seeing the fallout from myriad pandemic-related consequences. The chief struggle now, he says, is hiring.
Long Beach employment agencies, as previously reported by the Long Beach Business Journal, point to continued fear of the COVID-19 virus, childcare limitations and workers finding more stable jobs outside of the restaurant industry as reasons for the hiring stalls.
But what Cohn is hearing from most businesses as the root cause is the added federal unemployment benefits. Most are making more money staying unemployed than if they returned to work, he said.
“We’ve heard all kinds of things from folks who would go work for one shift at a restaurant, then quit and file for unemployment,” Cohn said.
In the last three months Perez, owner of MeeMa’s, said he’s had three people do this. In his 25 years working in the restaurant industry, Perez said he’d only seen that happen twice before.
It’s been tough to find front of house staff, Perez said, and especially challenging to hire line cooks. Without cooks he said he has to limit his service capacity, so he doesn’t overwhelm his kitchen. That, combined with inflating food costs, has severely hurt his bottom line.
“You need certain revenue on one end, so you can afford to pay the staff, you don’t have the staff, you can’t operate as much to make the revenue,” Cohn said of the business cycle. “So there’s a catch 22 there.”
Perez said he and other businesses have increased wages to try and attract new staff, but that hasn’t been met with much success.
“We have no choice,” he said. “That’s also something we weren’t ready for.”
Both Cohn and Perez predict the job market may improve once federal unemployment benefits expire in September.
“The issue is surviving until then,” Cohn said.
It’s not, however, all doom and gloom Cohn notes. Despite the dozen closures in the last 15 months a number of new businesses, including MeeMa’s, opened during the pandemic. Some of these include Wood & Salt Tavern, SomiSomi, Sala Coffee & Wine, plant shop Rooted LB and three tattoo shops. Sal’s Gumbo shack is scheduled to open in the next few months.
And Georgie’s Place is slated to become LA Crab, what will be the Irvine-based seafood restaurants’s second location.
“They are stripping the place. Construction is underway,” Cohn said.
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