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St. Louis restaurants fear new COVID wave could push them to the brink

Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Qui Tran works every day to make sure his restaurants, Mai Lee and Nudo House, stay afloat.

The last two years have been a particularly tough time for local restaurants. With staff shortages, supply chain issues, an increase in food costs and a host of other issues most customers aren’t privy to, restaurant crews are working as hard as they can to survive. The surge of the omicron variant only made things worse.

“Right now, I don't know what day of the week it is,” Qui Tran told St. Louis on the Air. Tran is the owner of Mai Lee in Brentwood and Nudo House, which has locations in the Delmar Loop and Creve Coeur. “I don't know what time it is — I'm just working seven days a week right now just floating between three restaurants. ”

Restaurant owners like Tran spend every single day working to make sure they can keep their businesses afloat. That means taking on any job, making sure workers can get paid and stay healthy, and maintaining a good working environment for their employees. Tran said that when customers don’t comply with his restaurants’ regulations — he’s required masks throughout the entire pandemic — he comes to the defense of his employees.

Jason Sparks says restaurants face problems in the pandemic that many people don't see.
Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Jason Sparks says restaurants face problems in the pandemic that many people don't see.

“We have a sign up that says ‘safety is the new hospitality,’” Tran said. “And you know, for me, losing one customer is better than having an outbreak in my restaurant where I can't open at all. So either you wear your mask, or you just can't come in.”

Jason Sparks, who owns Layla, in the city’s Grove neighborhood and in Webster Groves, has felt similar pressures. He told St. Louis on the Air that at his Webster Groves location, his employees at one point shed some safety protocols to appease customers — but only briefly.

“We put our masks down because we were making the customers uncomfortable. They just didn't like it,” Sparks said. “But we brought it back. It was just too much. It was just too risky.”

The ongoing situation has been incredibly stressful for restaurant owners. Owning a restaurant is on Tran and Sparks’ minds all hours of the day and has taken a mental and physical toll.

"It's not over:" The pandemic is still causing restaurants to struggle.

“You go from being positive and trying to figure everything out to having three panic attacks, which I’ve never, ever had in my 44-year-old life,” Tran said. “I like to tell people all the time: I'm like a cockroach — I'm kind of hard to kill. But I was very close to getting killed.”

Sparks said he’s lost 20 pounds the past two months.

“So if anybody thinks that people aren't worrying about it,” he said, “You know, Qui and I are the ones that are worrying the most.”

The stress comes home with them, too.

“It's on our minds 100% of the time. I wake up in the middle of the night and just panic. ‘What am I going to do tomorrow? How's it going to work out tomorrow?’” Sparks said. “There's a lot that people don’t see.”

Restaurants had help from the government earlier in the pandemic, but those programs that helped them stay afloat are no longer active. Sparks and Tran both urged people to take action to help get those programs — like the Restaurant Revitalization Fund and the Paycheck Protection Program — to continue, because restaurants are still struggling as the pandemic continues.

“Obviously, it's not over,” Sparks said. “On my way here in the middle of the day, the highway was dead. People are working from home. The parking lot at my restaurant in Webster is empty, because everyone's gone back to working from home. So this isn't over.”

Tran added that during this time when restaurants still are facing major financial and day-to-day stressors, patience and kindness with your favorite local restaurants is key.

“We're trying our best every day and if there is a problem, just let us know and we will work something out with you,” Tran said. “Just come to show love to your local businesses, all of them.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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