iBerkshires is taking a look at business and employment as the Berkshires emerges from the pandemic through a series of articles. Business owners and community leaders were interviewed over the past couple months about jobs, challenges and chances for recovery.
Help wanted signs have been ubiquitous around the county for both small and large food service concerns.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Businesses throughout the county have felt different degrees of pressure over the past year as the novel coronavirus continued to tighten its grip. While some industries focused on adaptation, others were focused on survival.
In the food and service industry, this grip felt more like strangulation.
"I've been doing this for 17 years now, I've been in food for 17 years," Luke Marion, owner of Otto's Kitchen and Comfort said. "Yeah. And that's like almost a bragging point for people in food service or like pirates. You know, whatever comes our way we just deal with job, you deal with all the mud and the shit that gets flung at you.
"And if it's bad this year, whatever. I got no choice but to keep on cooking and keep on serving."
Initially, many businesses were forced to close outright when the pandemic picked up steam in Massachusetts in March 2020.
Eventually, some establishments were able to reopen in different capacities, trying to abide by changing regulations and protocols. Many of these regulations have been dropped or demoted to suggestions as vaccine rates rose and the state began to return to normal during the spring.
According to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, it's estimated that 20 percent of restaurants did not survive 2020. Those who have braved the storm are now focused on recovery now that they can open their doors a little wider.
The case is no different in Berkshire County.
"We all are aware that COVID negatively impacted specific industries more than others," said Marcus Coleman, a financial advisor at Raymond James & Associates Inc. in Pittsfield. "One sector that was affected the hardest due to COVID was the service industry. With the Berkshires being a summer vacation destination, many restaurants, resorts, hotels, and inns struggled financially in 2020 without their traditional summer season."
Restaurant owners and other members of the service industry confirm this without hesitation.
"I don't know where it is going to end," Fahri Karakaya, owner of Pera Mediterranean Bistro in Williamstown, said when interviewed in May. "Hopefully it is going to end soon."
Karakaya said before the pandemic he had 18 to 20 employees. With the pandemic, they were forced to downsize to about six employees
In May, this number was increased to about nine. Only three of these employees were full time, which created new challenges for Karakaya who has struggled to staff his bistro.
"Because we were short on staff, we closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and we want to open the restaurant -- we want to go back to normal hours, which is seven days a week, lunch and dinner. But we cannot do that because of the shortened staff," he said. "Until we hire more people, we're going to be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. I'm hoping that by the end of May, we are going to hire more people, and then we'll go back to our normal operating hours."
Last month, Pera was able to open six days a week but other venues continue to struggle to fill empty jobs.
Karen Gosselin, the owner of Spring Street Market and Cafe in Williamstown, had faced similar staffing challenges. Like Karakaya, she was forced to close in March 2020 and although the cafe was able to open back up a few months, the hours had to change.
"Instead of being open until 5 p.m., we started closing at 3. Luckily, most of our people came back, and we went from there," she said. "The summer of 2020, we closed at 3 every day instead of 5. It was definitely difficult, really hard."
Even national chains like Wendy's felt impacts from the pandemic and the decreased workforce. The Pittsfield location was forced to close its dining room and only operate the drive-through.
Adaptation has been important over the past year and many restaurants operated purely on takeout and delivery with investments in online ordering systems. Marion said this was new to Otto's but something they had to do in order to continue business in some way.
"You can say we're relatively new to online ordering. You know, we started implementing a system in December, before pandemic, so December 2019," he said. "We saw the business decline. We said, 'alright, so we got online ordering going'. And so that's a dance we've been playing for over a year is 'all right, now we need to balance our in-house business with the phone and online.' "
Others saw this same opportunity and in North Adams, the Italian restaurant Grazie offered family-style meals for takeout that allowed different portion options. Freight Yard Pub overhauled its website to streamline online orders.
The Freight Yard Pub owners went as far as to open up a new business, the Craft Food Barn, that purely focuses on takeout.
COVID-19 not only affected restaurants directly but also the services connected to them
Gosselin said everything has changed and even simple things like purchasing plastic gloves have become a bigger expense. The plastic gloves she used to purchase have increased in price from $39 to $106
"You're paying more," she said. "Everything has to be in to-go containers, which are expensive, you're paying three times as much for gloves, and the cleaning supplies, which I always used a lot of anyway, all those chemicals cost more."
Karakaya aired similar concerns. He said food prices are trampolining through the roof.
"The guy was just here [delivering food]," he said. "Chicken and steak and produce is skyrocketing. Chicken is like $85 a case, and it used to be $50. Steak is crazy. And seafood is crazy. And produce. It's the same issue. They cannot find the people to trim the meat or trim the meat or trim the chicken. There's a supply problem. They cannot find enough people to produce more stuff."
Throughout May and June, restaurateurs complained of missed or shorted deliveries and climbing prices.
Karakaya said he, unfortunately, had to increase his prices.
Gosselin said this is also something she has to consider.
"And I haven't raised my prices. In June, it will be seven years we've been open, and the prices we opened with for sandwiches, I never raised them," she said in May. "My friends say you have to raise your prices. I raise grocery prices as they're raised to me. But that part is tough. I don't want to do that. What am I going to raise my prices now? Everyone is having a hard time. That part is the tough part to figure out."
Karakaya said he sees the problem in other industries connected to his own. He said he had difficulties scheduling someone to clean his hood which is a bigger concern with impending inspections.
"I try very hard to get people here to clean the hood. Every time I call them, they don't come. They keep rescheduling," he said. "I talked to the owners and said, 'Come on, I need you guys to come here and clean the hood because of the inspections. I don't want to get in trouble with the town hall.' And he was so upset. He said, 'Fahri, I don't know what to do. I don't have any employees.' So you're going to wait."
The circle gets wider and the hospitality industry is also feeling some pandemic pressure.
"We're definitely in the same boat as our counterparts in restaurants, hotels and retail. We're slowly bringing people on, but it's been a trickle, not a river," Williams Inn General Manager Kevin Hurley said.
He said like many others, the hotel was fully closed for three months, which meant laying employees off.
"Even now that they are open, services are still limited, especially in the hotel restaurant," he said. "We've run a far limited offering since we reopened in July , particularly on the restaurant front. We're offering only dinner four nights a week and brunch on Sundays right now. Originally, we served breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. There were quite a few positions that were cut back."
A fully-staffed Williams Inn has around 80 employees. At the time of this interview, there were around 20 on staff.
Hurley cited similar challenges in hiring employees.
But there is optimism within the industry, especially with the summer season in full swing and the pandemic seemingly ramping down.
"We do want to expand the restaurant offerings back to more dinner periods and breakfast, to every position … the structure is not exactly the same as it was before," Hurley said. "But for the most part, and definitely in some areas. We're still in the process and still opening positions as well."
The inn is open but daily breakfast and service at the bar is not available yet; but there is brunch on Sunday and dinner service Wednesday through Sunday.
"I'm super optimistic. Really because we're on the Williams College campus we have been so lucky. We still get a fair amount of business with students, and the locals in this town are fantastic," Gosselin said. "I feel like the summer, the theater is coming back a little bit, we're definitely going to stay open to 5 p.m. I'm really optimistic and hopeful. I'm just mad at how the government went about it. I'm sure it doesn't feel good for the people staying home either. It's just not good for anybody. It does make it really difficult for making small businesses."
Staff writers Jack Guerino, Brittany Polito and Stephen Dravis contributed to this report.
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Firefighters used several avenues of attack to douse the blaze.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A midday fire Thursday on South Atlantic Avenue killed a pet and left a family homeless.
Police happened to be at a neighboring house when they were notified of a fire at 16 South Atlantic. The Fire Department was called out at 12:35 p.m. and found "heavy fire conditions" on the first floor in the kitchen area, reported Deputy Chief Daniel Garner.
The fire had extended into the adjoining rooms of the 2 1/2-story, wood frame home. Crews from four engines and a ladder truck attacked the blaze; a primary search was conducted to ensure no one was in the building.
There were no reported injuries but a dog perished in the blaze. Garner estimated that the house suffered about $20,000 to $50,000 in damage, largely from heavy fire and smoke on the first floor and smoke damage throughout.