Local restaurants recover in different ways, one year into COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 6:24 PM, Mar 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-16 19:24:04-04

MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee's food service industry is fighting back after a very tough year.

A survey earlier this year by the National Restaurant Association shows many restaurants are struggling to recover, with nearly one in three restaurant owners believe it could be at least a year before things return to normal.

Some restaurants downsized staff, while some others closed. Some others completely changed business models, all after the pandemic rocked the industry.

Milwaukee. Food. Drinks. The words are almost synonymous with fun and nightlife in the Cream City.

“It's been a really difficult year. No one has written a playbook for what you can do in a year like this,” Paul Hackbarth, owner of Camp Bar in Milwaukee.

Paul Hackbarth was forced to close his entire hospitality portfolio. It meant temporarily shuttering five bars and three other venues. These days, things are a little bit better, but it's still an uphill climb.

"Sometimes, I don't think people realize what we had to go through, especially in our industry, to stay alive,” Hackbarth said.

A survey published by the Wisconsin Restaurant Association in February shows that the devastating impact on restaurants continues to this day. About 92 percent of the 3,000 restaurants surveyed said they expect staffing levels to be lower this month than they were even in January. About 29 percent of operators reported layoffs of furloughs as recently as the start of 2021.

"It's 10:48. We're ready at 11 o'clock and people are standing outside,” said Dwight Jackson, owner of Pepper Pot Catering.

Things are a bit more pleasant over at Pepper Pot Catering on 41st and Capitol. The Jamaican food restaurant actually saw an increase in business after shutting down for two weeks last spring to regroup.

“Because we are so small and people don't want to go sit down or couldn't sit down, so the best thing for them was to come to Pepper Pot,” Jackson said.

The cozy space allowed for more catering and pickup opportunities, instead of dealing with dine-in overhead.

"It's certainly a year that will not be forgotten quickly,” said Sean Wille of Don’s Grocery & Liquor.

'Normal' isn't really a thing these days.

Last year, the pandemic forced major changes as the Walker's Point diner converted into a grocery store. Now it's also a not-so-secret dine-in speakeasy, dressed up as a TV repair center.

“I think there are going to be changes that are here to stay. I think normal is going to have a new definition. We're going to see what the 'new normal' is,” Wille said.

Although many restaurants added back employees after the initial lockdowns, overall staffing levels remain well below normal.

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