Chattanooga area restaurants are seeing sales receipts climbing to near-record levels in some cases, which is proving to be both good and bad news as staffing remains a struggle.
The increased numbers of people wanting to get out and have a good time have stressed staff and customers alike to the point of physical altercations in some cases.
In others, it has meant hospitality workers pulling double and even triple shifts, which increases the stress levels and adds to delays in service as workers are simply tired, area restaurateurs say.
Scottie Bowman said her Scottie's on the River restaurant is "killing it." And her Big Chill on Cherokee Boulevard is doing very well after she implemented some policy changes put into place to give her staff some time off and to make the restaurant a safe place for them to work after things got anything but chill as people began venturing out into the world.
For example, she started closing at 11 p.m. instead of 1 or 2 a.m., and she started scanning IDs to keep them on record because people were walking out on tabs or otherwise causing trouble. And she started enforcing a long-held but rarely utilized policy of not seating a large party until everyone in the group has arrived.
"We are short-staffed and people don't understand what is going on," she said. "For a party of 12 [for example], four people would show up and the other eight wouldn't show up for an hour or more. Meanwhile, the server is waiting on the four, but could have been making money on those other tables [which sit empty]."
The changes have not always been embraced by every customer. In fact, one server has been punched three different times and another customer assaulted Bowman and three employees during a brunch several weeks ago, she said.
"Yeah, it was brunch. I wish I could give him the alcohol excuse, but I can't," she said.
The brunch incident escalated when Bowman refused to take drinks off of the tab. After he complained, things got physical.
"He started out angry because we wouldn't seat them, and it got worse," she said. "We never take drinks off the tab."
Bowman said things have cooled off substantially at the Big Chill in the six weeks since the policies were put into place.
"We were having some issues, but sales are still way up at both places, and we haven't had any problems."
While St. John's owner Josh Carter said staffing is also an issue at his restaurant, it has nonetheless had a couple of record-setting sales nights in recent weeks.
"Things are really pretty good right now," he said. "The demand is really high, even during the week when we are sometimes busier than we would be normally.
"The flip side is staffing. We get very few applications for work. We are handling the greatest demand we've had in a while but with 20% to 30% less staff."
St. John's is known for its fine cuisine, and Carter said he hopes people understand that quality takes time.
"We benefit from having people who are out to celebrate, so they are typically not coming in with all of their troubles. The whole process is interconnected from the dishwasher to the chef and server, and some are working six nights a week and some have two jobs so they are really tired and stressed.
"We'd rather you wait and have a perfect meal and dish than to hurry up."
The other challenge for Carter and St. John's, he said, is that it's hard to predict which nights will see the most traffic.
"There is no way to pin down when or why people are showing up. But we feel very lucky to be here honestly. There were days when we weren't sure we'd make it.
Bluff View Art District Director of Operations Michael Vasta said customers are flocking to both Tony's Pasta Shop & Trattoria and Rembrandt's Coffee House in the district, and they are doing so consistently throughout the week.
"Around 10 every morning, there is a line at Rembrandt's out the door," he said.
However, to maintain a staff, he said wages have been increased and that means prices have gone up, but customers don't seem to mind.
"Sales are up, the number of customers is up and the per-person spending is up," he said.
He said he is also calling every job applicant he gets and not getting many callbacks or people taking his call.
"We are not in a bad situation because a lot of our employees have been with us for a while, but they are maybe working longer hours or an additional day than they normally would. Maybe in August when college kids get back to school, we will see more people wanting to work."
Bowman said people want to blame hospitality staff not returning to work on unemployment and government bailouts, but she said many industry workers took jobs in other fields, particularly ones that allow them to work from home.
"It's not just government checks," she said. "But, we are finally getting staffed up at Scottie's," where she said it takes 15 servers and four bartenders each shift to make things run smoothly.
Max Poppel at the Flying Squirrel said his restaurant has also managed to keep most of its staff but could use a few new employees. It has also made a few policy changes such as accepting reservations that seem to have made customers happy.
"We kicked the idea around for years and thought we'd give it a shot and people seem to enjoy being able to do that. Food-wise, our sales have shifted almost back to where it was before the pandemic."
All of the restaurateurs said it's clear that people are ready and excited to be eating at restaurants again.
"Especially at Scottie's," Bowman said. "It's summertime and we are on the river and people want to get out. Customers are just not always nice right now, and I think it's from not understanding how hard hit the restaurant industry was. We are short-staffed and people don't understand. I just wish people would be nice."
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.