Here’s a news alert: Everything’s getting more expensive.
OK, it’s not news. Everything’s always been getting more expensive. But costs have been getting crazier and growing by longer leaps and higher bounds in recent times, due to more factors than anyone can juggle.
The term “perfect storm” has become a sort of pat cliche, but it continues to aptly describe a host of local, national and worldwide issues converging on individuals and businesses.
Work shortages, good old-fashioned inflation, interest rates, rent increases, a pandemic, a war or two, maybe throw in climate change. Some of these factors directly affect the cost of fuel, particularly gasoline for motor vehicles and natural gas that’s used for, among other things, cooking and heating.
The price of fuel can be said to be at the top of the pyramid of problems that trickles down from business to business as each adjusts costs to offset additional expenses, with those adjustments eventually landing at the feet of the end consumer and burrowing into the wallets of everyday people who can no longer pass them any further.
Right now, restaurants are getting hit with the same sort of astronomical gas bills that regular residents have suffered through, but the restaurant bills are writ large because of the high volume of natural gas required to prepare food and to keep customers comfortable.
“I wasn’t expecting such a big increase in the cost of gas,” said Luis Navarro, owner of Lola’s Mexican restaurants on Fourth Street’s Retro Row and in Bixby Knolls, as well as the Social List restaurant also on Retro Row.
“Lola’s on Fourth typically has a gas bill of around $800. Last month it was for $3,293,” he said. “It’s really hard to deal with that, and it was totally unexpected.”
Navarro, like other restaurateurs in the city, has had other problems, including break-ins, difficulty in hiring help and a diminishing lunchtime crowd with so many people leaving offices vacant to work from home.
“It’s been gut punch after gut punch after gut punch,” he said.
When the gas prices shot up, Navarro said he called the city to see if he could get relief. He could not, but he took the news philosophically.
“They said the city only gave relief to residents, and not to businesses, and I think that comes first. I think that’s the right move, to take care of families, kids and elders.”
For John Morris, general manager of Boathouse on the Bay in Alamitos Bay Landing, the surge in his restaurant’s gas bill is just another expense amid a barrage of costs in the food business.
“We averaged about $2,500 for gas, now it’s over $6,000,” he said. “It’s crazy, but everything’s crazy. Alcohol’s up, food is up, and that’s even if you can get it, and when it does get delivered, there’s a $50 delivery fee to cover the gas for the vendors.”
He’s had to take things off the menu just because he’d have to charge outlandish prices to cover his cost. He said he won’t and can’t sell crab legs for $100. “People who go to Orange County will pay that, because they’re used to it,” Morris said. “My customers won’t pay that much.”
The suddenness of the unanticipated hike made things particularly difficult, said Jason Witzl, chef and owner of Ellie’s and Lupe’s restaurants, whose gas bill has gone up three and four times over its usual $800 a month.
“It was an immediate cost that we weren’t ready for,” he said. “You can’t offset the cost when it comes like that. You just have to eat it.”
Witzl did acknowledge that he’s managed to avoid some problems that other restaurant owners have: He says he hasn’t had much problem finding employees because the ones he has are dedicated and have been with him for a while, and he says his restaurants are finally getting back to pre-COVID numbers.
Still, other issues, like the sudden and towering gas bills, are tough to surmount. “Things just have to even out some,” he said. “It’s OK to have ebbs and flows, but there’s gotta be more flows.
“If gas stays expensive, we’ll just have to work with it,” he said. “Maybe buy a bunch of microwaves.”