A universal truth about restaurants is that they have, historically, run at razor-thin margins. Omaha entrée-preneurs have made an art out of elevating an experience without coming down too hard on their customers’ wallets. This often results in truly finding the edge of what razor-thin can look like, both in terms of those margins and the patience and capacity of their staff. But that creativity and ingenuity are responsible for the uniquely thriving dining scene Omaha has watched flourish over the last two decades.
This year has put everyone on that edge, and with the exception of hospital staff, nobody has been more put-upon than the dining industry. When everything was forced to shut down, society was given an opportunity to shift how things operate. Instead, a push was made to “get back to normal,” and we are seeing what happens when a strained system is pushed too far. From labor shortages to a broken
food supply chain, the restaurant industry is on the verge of a revolution.
From the Kitchen
Recovering accountant and Metropolitan Community College culinary alumnus Angie Andahl knows the ins and outs of balancing a budget, and of a successful kitchen. Specifically, what draws people in and what drives them out. After leaving her 9-5, Chef Andahl cut her culinary teeth creating custom vegan treats at Modern Love. She currently splits her time between whipping up unique eats in the highly collaborative Saddle Creek Breakfast Club kitchen and staying home with her five-year-old son.
“As an accountant, I made a lot more money,” Andahl said. “But the people I get to work with, the creative license I’m given, and the flexibility I have with this position makes it absolutely perfect for me.”
Where once that creativity would lead to Andahl reinventing a lemon curd, it’s now being employed to completely re-route course when a shipment of ingredients simply doesn’t come in.
“The supply chain issues have thrown us off a lot,” Andahl said. “Our kitchen is small and very precise. We have exactly how much space we have, and we prep exactly what we can use. Timing and accuracy are very important for us to be able to serve our menu every day. This year, though — there’s literally nothing we can do to prepare for the trucks not coming, or just not bringing most of the order.”
“Chase (Thomsen, SCBC’s chef/owner) is always having to run to the store to find things that just didn’t show up in our shipment. It gets expensive really fast, but he’s going above and beyond to make sure he’s not passing that on to the customers or any of us. Especially since we have some really great regulars we just don’t want to let down.”
Sometimes that means shelving an item when the ingredients become too difficult to source.
“Our Benny had been a staple on our menu, but since the cost of brisket has gotten so out of control, Chase only brings it out every now and then. He doesn’t want to raise prices, so that meant cutting one of our most popular items.”
Front of the House
Andahl’s view from the kitchen she loves is optimistic, but weary. She knows her experience is unique because of the environment at SCBC and understands that the experience of most industry workers in Omaha is significantly more dire.
Meg F., a full-time student, mother of two, and server at an upscale Omaha establishment entered our conversation in full customer service mode. She chirped about the loyal regulars who make serving a joy, the brilliance of the restaurant’s executive chef and how lucky she feels to have a job where COVID precautions were taken seriously.
It’s not long, however, before she asks for a pseudonym because things got real, real fast.
“The service industry is not in a great place currently,” she said. “We are having a horrible time getting food, alcohol, everything. The trucks come with half orders, and we’re left with a menu we can’t fulfill.”
Meg’s ability to handle difficult people has been the secret to her success in the industry, but everyone has a breaking point.
“Staffing has been impossible. We’re hiring anyone who will show up for an interview, even if they aren’t qualified. The pay here is really good, even on a relatively slow day, and my manager is really willing to train you or work with you on your schedule. It’s a really good place to serve, when we have enough staff. But no matter how many applications we accept or interviews we schedule, people just aren’t showing up. I haven’t seen anything like this in more than 17 years in the industry. The turnaround rate is insanely high right now, and it’s really exhausting.”
From the Source
Factory-side, many big-name brands are currently being faced with a worker uprising. Inhumane conditions and “suicide shifts” have resulted in strikes at Kelloggs, Nabisco and Frito Lays, as well as unionization and mass resignation at a number of fast food establishments. Overseas imports have been stalled by frequent obstruction of shipping routes. Additionally, a driver shortage means that even when stock is making it into port, it’s not finding its way on time, or even at all.
A number of inquiries to Sysco reps resulted in a great deal of demurring before an official shut down questioning. One rep insisted there wasn’t a problem fulfilling orders, pointing to the company’s “excellent numbers” for the year before the deliverance of a stock answer about Sysco doing everything in its power to match unprecedented demand.
On condition of anonymity, multiple drivers cited long hours and injuries for the massive driver turnaround.
A Tipping Point
The match hovering over this powder keg is you. Your decisions to continue supporting Omaha restaurants, to be patient with new staff and understanding of a chef’s ability to keep the menu agile among changing inventory decides whether or not Omaha holds onto the reputation these talents have built for us as a foodie city.
Bartholomew Restaurant Holdings founder Nick Bartholomew is familiar with circumstances outside of his control taking away something he’s worked tirelessly for. After losing Market House to a fire nearly six years ago, he decided to create something that couldn’t burn.
The birth of Dandelion Pop-Up gave a platform to those who didn’t have one and has spawned several successful kitchen careers for the effort.
Bartholomew’s approach to the current crisis is hopeful.
“We are seeing that people are still willing to do the hard work to put out something great and creative,” he said, “and they’re willing to change how they’re serving to make it happen.”
Bartholomew mourns each establishment’s closure but sees this shift as a season within the industry, making way for growth and positive change.
“I think in place of the system that was, frankly, broken already, we’re going to see a new restaurant industry. Like it or not, things aren’t going to stay the same. The good news is that we have a say in how they change.”
“I think the future looks like a lot more cooperative kitchens. I think we’ll see a lot more collaboration and a lot more looking out for each other. There’s plenty of demand and plenty of creativity, we just have to support it and let it happen. This is a hard moment for us, but I think on the other side, we see something a lot more natural start to thrive.”