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Wasatch Back Restaurants Grapple With Lingering Effects of Covid

Sean Higgins

During last year’s Covid-driven shutdown, restaurant owners and workers pivoted to take-out business models. As social distancing and mask restrictions lifted, they adapted by restricting dining-in capacity, though that meant reduced sales.

Chick's Café has been on Heber City's Main Street for 85 years and is owned and operated by the Wright family. Shelly Wright said they have been fortunate with maintaining loyalty from their staff. She attributes it to paying her employees first with Payment Protection Plan federal funds, known as PPP.

"We've just been blessed with family and then the Hispanic people that we have. Our cook, and our dishwashers, and our waitresses, have been phenomenal and very, very good to us."

Granny's Drive-In in Heber is a seasonal operation open just four to five months during the summer. Owner Wendy Motyka said every year, it's a challenge to start up again.

"This year, in particular, has been difficult to staff our kitchen which is more experienced people, older, you know, a little older. Pretty much my husband and I are in the kitchen every day, or the restaurant won't open. We're fortunate enough to have a fleet of high school kids that work for us. And I think it's just because we are Granny's, and it's tradition for the Wasatch kids to work at Granny's. So, we are fortunate enough to have that. But our kitchen staff is, is a struggle."

The Back 40 Ranch House Grill on US 40 in Heber has been open since December 2015. Owner and Manager Gary Wohlfarth has worked in the business for 35 years. When the pandemic hit, he said his first step was to take care of his staff by paying them during the months they were closed. He also wanted to make sure no one on his staff went hungry. When they opened again in May of 2020, nearly his entire staff came back to work.

"It's always been a high turnover industry, and when the pandemic hit a lot of owners just let people go, like, sorry I can't pay you. And that's understandable in some respects, but I paid people in full for the time we were closed. I set up a grocery store here to feed my employees if they didn't have food. Like once a week, they could come to get, rice, beans, eggs, you know, make sure that everybody's being fed. As long as we can get through this and you can pay your bills, and I can feed you, then we will pull through this together."

Bill White owns eight Park City restaurants, including a bakery, employing four to 500 people full-time. As owner and manager of Bill White Enterprises, he said the service industry and workers have struggled in ways many people don't realize.     

"Anybody that had to interface with the public and didn't get that luxury of working from home on a Zoom call every day while they're actually in Costa Rica on vacation or something like that. It's almost like PTSD.   And you have a family at home, and you have to go to work, and then you've got to deal with childcare, and there are no schools open, and this, that, and the other thing, it really caused a lot of mental anguish."

White said service workers feel dismissed because they didn't have access to priority vaccines, and they all had to wear masks while interacting with the public even though customers weren't required.

"Service industry people, they got a little bit of a bump on their unemployment or subsidy that way. I think it was more of a mental challenge that they were treated as second-class citizens or even third-class citizens."

White's average employee tenure is 15 years, and he thinks it's essential to cultivate a work-life balance and value the people and families that work for him. However, he said there is uncertainty if restaurateurs can't hire enough staff to keep their businesses viable. 

KPCW reporter Carolyn Murray covers Summit and Wasatch County School Districts. She also reports on wildlife and environmental stories, along with breaking news. Carolyn has been in town since the mid ‘80s and raised two daughters in Park City.