Most chefs like myself dream of owning their own space. In early 2020, that dream became a reality for me with the January 7 opening of The Hummingbird Way. My first restaurant – and something I had been planning for most of my career – there was a palpable yet quiet buzz around town with locals excited to have a new restaurant opening in a historic space. We had everything positioned for a great opening: the staff was ready, the décor, tables, chairs, menus, licenses, and everything needed was in place and ready to go. I was, without question, so excited and felt well-prepared for this new endeavor.
We opened with a bang. Guests were coming and enjoying the restaurant, we were busy, and we were doing a good job of making The Hummingbird Way a special restaurant. We had two months of real business before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and since that time, this worldwide moment in time has been a constant issue not only for The Hummingbird Way but for every restaurant across the country.
When the world shut down, we did what most restaurants did: we pivoted to curbside pick-up and delivery, changed the way our menu worked, helped the staff make sure they were able to claim unemployment, and did everything possible to make sure our restaurant stayed open. There was a long stretch when my wife, Tracy, and myself were the only people operating the restaurant; we did all the cooking, cleaning, curbside, and promotion of the restaurant by ourselves. We even closed the restaurant for nearly a month in 2021 when the newness of curbside and delivery started to fade.
When we opened the dining room again, it was clear that guests were incredibly excited to be out – whether that be dining outside or sitting on one end of the restaurant by themselves. But even so, and over the course of the past two years, we have had to close intermittently for hurricanes, storms, and staff exposures. I genuinely feel, however, that our commitment to trying to stay open over the course of the worst of the pandemic won the loyalty of many of our guests and has kept us in the minds of hungry diners since.
Our story is one shared by most restaurant owners over the course of the last two years, and despite steps forward, pandemic effects are still being felt in real ways. While we are lucky in that our staff is small – and our employees enjoy working here and understand that we are working towards making The Hummingbird Way one of the best restaurants in the South – many restaurants like us struggle daily with staffing. Many food industry professionals found new careers during the pandemic or decided to work from home altogether.
Additionally, prices for everything a restaurant needs have massively increased over the past two years. Simple items like cooking oil and latex gloves have doubled or tripled in price since the start of the pandemic and have stayed that high for two years running. Outside of the restaurant industry, every person who shops understands how the costs of meats have dramatically risen since the pandemic began, so there is a broad understanding of cost surges there.
Given all of this, in many ways, we have been lucky because the choices we made in running this restaurant throughout all challenges have kept us afloat. But many amazing restaurants across the country have permanently closed their doors, and even more are still struggling. So, what can you do to ensure that the restaurants you love survive?
First, simply support local restaurants in any way you can. Please go and eat at the small, independently owned restaurants, as these places need your support the most. They don’t have a larger infrastructure to depend on for support and have been forced to make tough decisions to fight to stay open for the past two years. They need all the support they can get.
Secondly, please seek out restaurants that support local farmers and fishers. All segments of the food chain have been hit hard over the past years, so it is important that you support restaurants that support others in your local community.
Lastly, as a guest, please don’t assume that since you may feel like the pandemic is over that everything is ‘business as usual’ for restaurants. With so many restaurants having staffing issues, they need your patience, respect and understanding. As a diner, you should continue to expect higher prices and longer wait times – that is the reality of our situation, but please understand all of us are working to make your experience a positive one. If you have any issues, I urge you to reach out to management while you are there as opposed to leaving a restaurant mad and posting a negative review online. We can usually address or repair any diner issue onsite.
The bottom line is that restaurants, like The Hummingbird Way and so many across our state and nation, need your support and understanding because our industry has been one of the most affected industries over the course of the pandemic. Optimistically, however, I truly feel like we may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and hope diners can help us – and all of their favorite local establishments stay – open for many years to come.