For many, the COVID-19 pandemic and the summer of 2020 is a time that they’d like to forget, and for the most part, people have been able to return to what is at least a semblance of pre-COVID normalcy.
However, many businesses, including those in and around Waseca County, are still facing some serious repercussions from the pandemic. One of those businesses affected, The Willows Restaurant and Lounge in New Richland, has seemingly returned to the same level of business, but with greatly diminished help.
COVID-19 took a toll on The Willows, like many other businesses. However, owner Travis Blake said the restaurant was fortunate enough to not have to shut down entirely, instead shifting to a take-out only style business for a number of months.
It was during those months that Blake said he saw the community rally around the restaurant.
“The community really came together. We’d have local farmers coming in to take lunches home multiple times a week and just donating extra money to make sure we could make ends meet,” Blake, who owns The Willows with his wife Heather, said.
He added that he still had mortgages, property taxes, loan payments and other costs associated with running a business while the pandemic and shut down was happening.
“But, going back to being a part of a small community, there was a lot of help there. The bank helped with freezing mortgage payments, or differing payments on loans, during that time,” Blake said.
Now, around a year removed from COVID restrictions being lifted from restaurants, Blake said the business has rebounded well, but they’re still seeing some issues.
“We’re almost back to where we were pre-COVID. On any given night, we can hit that 100 customer threshold,” Blake said. “Staff-wise … as far as new hires go, we’re not even close [to pre-COVID numbers]. Before, if we posted a kitchen opening, we’d have maybe seven applicants in two weeks. Now, we’ve been looking for kitchen staff for over a year and have gotten maybe one applicant a month.”
Blake said that he, like many business owners, needed to reduce their staff size during the pandemic, in order to keep the costs of running the business down. And while he has been able to retain the “core group of employees” who remained with the business, he’s having problems replacing those who left during the pandemic.
Blake said that, of the applicants he is seeing, many aren’t measuring up to his pre-COVID applicants. He said that a lot of the people applying for jobs, or who would normally have applied for jobs, have “lost their work ethic. Luckily, The Willows has been able to operate on the staff they do have.
“Some employees that did stay on are willing to work harder. For instance, our waitstaff don’t necessarily need to have that third or fourth person working with them, because some are willing to work harder to eliminate that other position,” Blake said, adding that he thought the “lack of work ethic” from external applicants came down to people adjusting their lifestyles over the pandemic.
“People got used to not working over the pandemic,” Blake said. “You’re seeing it in every industry and town, no matter the size. Whether it’s through tighter budgeting or getting help from the government, people got accustomed to living that way and don’t need that second job or don’t need their kids to get a job to help make ends meet.”
Along with staffing issues, Blake said The Willows is also facing issues with the supply chain. He explained that, now, items that they’d normally be able to order regularly might be out of stock or on back order.
“I’m constantly juggling what we have and what we don’t have. The staff are having to get used to coming in every day and figuring out what we have, or what we ran out of, or what we could get more of,” Blake said.
Supplies are an issue for another industry that’s hot in Waseca County: automotive repair.
“Everything is out of stock or on back order now. I mean, I was getting parts of off Amazon just so that we would have them,” Dave Krampitz said. Krampitz is the former owner of Dave’s Auto Body Shop in Waseca, which he sold to Willie and Ali Malecha in late 2022. “A job that I might be able to pull from three sources before the pandemic could easily take me pulling from 30 sources now.”
Ali said that the auto body industry is taking a hit in productivity that could be very harmful to their business.
“A job that would normally see you in and out in two weeks is now taking maybe six months. Back in the day, we were scheduling repairs for two weeks out. Now I’m telling people that if they’re still able to drive to keep driving their car, because I have people who have been without a car for months,” Ali said.
Willie added that that specific time problem can cause a huge issue for auto shops.
“All insurance companies track times, and that’s how they all rate their shops. In order to have a good rating, you have to keep a good flow going; it’s just a beat,” Willie said.
Struggling community help
And while businesses struggle to return to the normal level of productivity they saw pre-pandemic, community services from around the area. Specifically, the newly-relocated Waseca Area Food Shelf said they’re seeing an increase in demand.
“This time last year, we were serving about 75 families. Now, we’re serving about 150 families,” Nikki Schaffer said.
Schaffer is the Food Shelf coordinator, and she added that a big part of the reason for the increase is inflation and people not being able to keep up with their everyday expenses.
“Prices and inflation have gone up, and benefits haven’t risen to meet that, so people need help,” she said.
Even with the influx of new people looking for help, the Food Shelf still won’t turn anyone away.
“There’s something we have called ‘open borders.’ We don’t turn anyone away because of where they live. People can come from anywhere and use us; we just ask that you only take what you’ll use. … People come all the way from Mankato, Owatonna and Faribault, because they’re too nervous to use the food shelf in their areas,” Priebe said. “We also don’t have any salary or income requirements. We don’t check that.”
While the work is certainly appreciated, it’s becoming harder and harder. Food shelves across the area are still experiencing rising demand, and some say the supply they’re used to pulling from is actually shrinking. One of those food shelves, Community Pathways out of Owatonna, said their supply has shrunk by nearly a quarter.
“This time last year, we were serving about 250 families a week, and now we’re serving just under 500 a week,” Operations Manager Zach Roberts said. “Most of our food comes from the food bank in Rochester … and their supply has shrunk about 25%. It can be a challenge keeping up with more people needing to fill a gap in their spending.”
As for why this increase in demand is happening, Pathways points to a lack of government help going toward individuals, and the stress of coming out of the pandemic.
“I think a lot of people were riding that edge already, and with prices increasing and the eviction moratorium ending that line just crashed and people see us as a resource,” Robin Starr, marketing and outreach coordinator for Community Pathways, said. “We’re happy to be here for them.”
Ethan Becker is a reporter for the Waseca County News. Reach him at (507) 333-3133. Find him on Twitter @Ethan_BeckerWCN or @WasecaNews.