Battle Creek

As restaurants nationwide face staff shortages and closings, two Battle Creek enterprises expand

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

If there is reason for optimism in the midst of a global pandemic, Peecoon Allen and Javier Fortoso appear to have found it. The two local restaurant owners proceeded with plans to expand their businesses at a time when restaurants throughout the United States were closing because they could no longer afford to stay open.
As of Dec.1, 2020, across the nation more than 110,000 eating and drinking places were closed for business temporarily or for good, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry Report.
“Of restaurants that closed for good in 2020, the majority were well-established businesses and fixtures in their communities,” the report says. “These operators had been in business, on average, for 16 years, and 16% of them had been open for at least 30 years.”
Pastrami Joe’s in downtown Battle Creek is an example of one of these community “fixtures.” After eight years in business at 80 W. Michigan Avenue, the restaurant closed in March because the pandemic slashed its customer base. The restaurant continues to operate its flagship location in Marshall.
The closure is one example of how the restaurant sector in Michigan is experiencing what is being seen nationally. About 2,000 restaurants throughout the state closed permanently as of November, 2020 because of the pandemic, according to the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association.
Given these statistics, some people may have been scratching their heads over Allen’s decision to shutter the original location of her Umami Ramen restaurant at 78 Calhoun Street in late November, 2020 with plans to re-open in January at a larger space at 215 W. Michigan Avenue, which housed the former Indian Cuisine.

They were likely equally as perplexed by Fortoso’s decision to open a second Torti Taco location in the space that formerly housed Pastrami Joe’s. Fortoso opened his first Torti Taco in 2016 at 5275 Beckley Road. Construction on his new location is expected to begin in April.

Umami Ramen patrons are asked to be more understanding with longer wait times, be less demanding for the service they got used to before the pandemic hit.The January re-opening date and several others set by Allen came and went as she navigated pandemic-related delays that pushed back the delivery of materials and supplies, unanticipated mechanical issues in the building and a minor stroke that landed her in the Intensive Care Unit at Bronson Hospital.
Allen says her innate optimism and belief in the inherent goodness of the Battle Creek community got her through these setbacks and onto the opening of the new Umami Ramen location in March. There are lessons she learned as a result of the pandemic, she says, that she is now using to her advantage as a business owner.
“There are things I can control and things I can’t. What I can control is how much time I’m willing to give to my business, my customers and my employees,” Allen says. “I had to learn and am still learning this. What I’ve learned is to let things play out. It's almost always better after a nice walk and good sleep.”
Fortoso says the pandemic lesson he learned as a business owner is, “Truthfully, how great our customers are. We knew we had good customers before the pandemic, but I am blown away with the support we have received during this difficult time.”

This is what kept him going as he focuses on the opening of a second Torti Taco location.
As restaurateurs like Allen and Fortoso forge ahead and arm themselves with whatever tools they have available to stay in business while navigating a constantly-changing pandemic, the MRLA has already issued a chilly forecast for their industry as it heads into winter.
“As we approach Michigan’s winter seasons and see consumer trends move away from in-person dining due to colder weather outdoors and concerns about the Delta variant, the recoil impact to the restaurant industry will be harsh, swift and very concerning,” says Justin Winslow, MRLA President & CEO, in a press release. “Less than one in three operators are doing better than they were pre-pandemic with business conditions being worse now than they were three months ago. These trend lines tell us that we are moving away from a desperately-needed resurgence as we approach the winter season.”
Peecoon Allen unpacks a delivery of mushrooms for her restaurant Umami Ramen.His comments came after the release of a survey conducted Sept. 7-15 by the National Restaurant Association Research Group with 4,000 restaurant operators to assess the ongoing economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the specter of further closures and losses in revenue looming large for an industry that has already been forced to withstand unimaginable challenges, Allen and Fortoso are providing a snapshot into what they have faced and continue to face as restaurant owners in a pandemic:
Q.: How did you go about finding employees?
Allen: We post on social media and reach out to people to help with recommendations. We have postings at the restaurant and talk to our customers to see if they know anyone who needs work.

Fortoso: We go about finding employees in many ways. One is social media. We advertise a lot on Facebook and Instagram as well as using other internet apps to look for potential employees. 
A dish served at Dishes served at Torti Tacos.Q.: Are you up to pre-pandemic staffing levels?
Allen:  No, not at all. The new location needs more staffing because it’s bigger and busier than our old location on Calhoun Street. It’s hard to keep up with the demand and provide good service to our customers.

Fortoso: Not yet, however, we hope to get back to those levels as soon as possible.
Q: How has a lack of employees impacted your ability to maintain normal business hours and remain open?

Allen: We’ve been struggling to get staffed since opening the new location in April 2021. We had to hire young people that are new to the workforce that have not yet learned to understand basic attendance and work ethics. We had to hire unproven managers to fit our budget (not recommended) as we can’t compete with the salary for experienced managers and supervisors. It’s been hard to sustain a good business practice without health insurance and benefits for recruiting new and experienced help. The lack of experienced help has had a negative impact on our business model because we can’t meet the demands of our customers to provide great service and great food.

Fortoso: For the most part it has been business as usual. There have been a couple hiccups along the way but nothing too major.
Torti Taco on Beckley Road is the first location for Javier Fortoso.Q.: Do you think restaurants should institute mask mandates and proof of vaccination similar to what is being done in other cities?

Allen: We do our best by making our employees wear masks while working (lost a few employees over it). Without a mandate from the governor or city officials it’s a struggle and a fight so we do our very best with the tools we have with cleaning and monitoring our employees.

Fortoso: I don’t think we should institute any mask mandates. I feel it will cause a loss of customers and employees. I think we should respect each other and move forward while respecting everyone involved.
Q.: In your opinion, what is creating the staffing shortages and where do you think these people have gone?

Allen: That question baffles me. People either retired early or decided to find work that is more flexible with hours or better pay with benefits. The whole country in every industry is suffering from employee shortages. I think it baffles most experts why people are not returning to the way things were. Personally, I hope companies will start to value human resources better for the value people bring to the bottom lines.

It tells us a lot even with sign-on bonuses and higher pay, companies are struggling to fill positions as demands have increased for goods and services. People are just tired and want a little piece of our lives back. I hope we make happiness a priority.

Dishes served at Torti Tacos.Fortoso: That’s a tricky question….I think it doesn’t boil down to one thing in general, I think there has been a myriad of reasons. Safety is one thing I think is a big one. No one wants to put themselves in harm’s way, especially when, in the beginning, there were so many unknowns about the virus. As we move forward and more information comes available to us, I hope everyone feels safe out and about. We will always strive to make people feel comfortable in our businesses 

Q.: What are your major struggles?

Allen: Our biggest struggle is having enough employees and having resources to pay higher wages to compete with bigger companies, shortage in supplies and having to pay two to three times more than a year ago. We don’t have the customer base for a $20 bowl of ramen. We didn’t have a chance to ease into our new forced business model.

Fortoso: We have the same struggles all restaurants have. One of the bigger ones is food cost. Food cost is up 10-15% across the board. It’s been difficult keeping up with the ever-changing prices. Another thing has been product availability. Sometimes the product we are searching for is simply not available. It can be frustrating at times but we keep moving forward.
Q.: How can your customers help through this staffing downturn?

Allen: Be more understanding with longer wait times, be less demanding for the service they got used to before the pandemic hit. Mistakes are going to happen because of lack of training time with new employees. Most of these new employees are high school students that are limited with experience and they try their best. Compassion…

Fortoso: Keep coming and seeing us! We appreciate all of our customers! If you are looking for a job, come down and see us! I promise it will be a fun time.
Q.: What do you think needs to be done to impact these staffing shortages?

Allen: I think this is a huge wake up call to all American businesses and governments to put in policies that will pay people more for the labor they provide and allow workers to have a balanced life with health benefits. We cannot continue to suppress pay increases while we’re fighting inflation. Most big corporations are now forced to pay $15 to $20 an hour but for small businesses like mine going from $9.65 (Michigan minimum wage) to $15 to $20 almost overnight will basically put most of us small businesses under. We just can’t compete.

Fortoso: We need more real information on the virus. I think the more real information that becomes available, the more at ease people may feel. I think it’s hard to know what to think when we get mostly opinions instead of facts. When everyone starts feeling more comfortable with the information, the more things may get back to normal. 

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.