It’s midday on a Friday in December and the doors to the Golden Pride restaurant on Central near Eubank are locked.
But the local fast food chain is still open. A handful of cars are snaking around the parking lot waiting patiently for their turn in the drive-thru.
A bold sign on the front of the restaurant, easily seen from the street, advises that the lobby is closed.
This is just one of the many restaurants in Albuquerque, and in the country, that have made operational changes during the course of the pandemic to stay open in a somewhat normal fashion.
For consumers, many of the changes are easy to see.
The lobbies in some restaurants, like the Golden Pride on Central, are closed to guests, while other restaurants have shortened hours due to a lack of labor, and menus are minimized as supply chains remain constricted.
According to experts, many of these changes are here to stay.
“I think the business model has, and will have to, change,” New Mexico Restaurant Association CEO Carol Wight said.
Few employees, fewer services
Most of the changes facing fast food and casual restaurants are the result of a shifting labor force that has allowed some workers to have the upper hand, according to Michael “Mo” O’Donnell, acting director of University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
“A lot of those restaurants are having difficulty actually getting labor and, to the extent that they can get people even interested in working for them, it seems as though … the wages that are required in order to pay them have gone up,” he said.
Higher wages, and fewer workers willing to work at fast food and casual service restaurants have been perpetual issues throughout the pandemic.
O’Donnell said a variety of things factor into this issue, among them workers being unwilling to expose themselves to the coronavirus, higher childcare costs and unpredictable childcare options forcing parents to stay at home, and rising costs in other parts of the economy that make it even more difficult to survive on wages offered by many fast-food and fast-casual restaurants.
The high demand for employees across a variety of sectors means that workers have an advantage and, according to O’Donnell, more opportunities to find job suitable for them, whether that’s leaving for a restaurant that pays better or moving to a different field that requires similar skills, such as telemarketing.
“There are opportunities in other industries outside of food service that, I imagine, would be attractive to people,” he said. “You know, it may still be jobs that aren’t as highly compensated, but perhaps people feel that there’s greater stability or less risk.”
A shifting labor force, combined with mass numbers of employees resigning from their jobs in favor of new opportunities, means that many employers are left struggling to fill open positions and may sometimes have to make such concessions as cutting hours or limiting service to just the drive-thru lanes.
On the ground
Both Frontier Restaurant and the Golden Pride locations have had to make these changes.
At Frontier, the hours have been cut back to 11 p.m. from 1 a.m., some items were removed from the Golden Pride menu and shifts are now divided, with no overlap, in a bid to limit potential exposure to the coronavirus, Frontier and Golden Pride owners Dorothy and Larry Rainosek said.
“The No. 1 issue is the staffing because we just had a difficult time in getting people interested in coming back to work,” Larry said about operating after the initial shutdowns.
Like many restaurants around town, the lobbies of most Golden Pride locations also remain closed. The Golden Pride on Central near Eubank is using its lobby for storage, while the Juan Tabo location converted its dining room into a preparation space.
“We just had to discontinue the dining room service, but we were able to shift a lot of the business into the drive-thru and we added lanes that worked out as we got better at it,” Larry said.
Though the drive-thru business has kept the company afloat, a lack of staff due to quarantine from potential exposure to coronavirus has occasionally made hours unpredictable, Dorothy said.
Even Dion’s has experienced some staffing issues that made the company temporarily shorten hours.
“While not to the same extremes as other businesses, Dion’s has faced staffing challenges on and off throughout the pandemic,” Dion’s chief of staff Deena Crawley wrote in an email. “At times, we have temporarily shortened our operating hours at a limited number of locations to ease pressures on employees.”
Blake’s Lotaburger vice president of human resources Craig Heide said the burger chain has also had to close stores occassionally for a shift when too few staff members showed up to work.
“It’s brought in some more inconsistency in regard to operations simply because we don’t have the staff to open the restaurants or to … provide a good customer experience,” he said.
A new normal
When the pandemic began in early 2020, many of the changes consumers were feeling – closed lobbies, long waits in line, erratic hours of operation – felt like temporary hurdles.
Yet, for many in the fast food and casual restaurant industry, these changes may be here to stay.
Wight said that changes around automation, to-go models and fewer workers have been happening for years, but were “accelerated” by the pandemic and are likely to stay.
She said she has been encouraging some of her member restaurants to follow the trend by considering counter service rather than dining service, or simplifying menus.
“I think people are expecting big changes coming out of the pandemic, and you may not have another opportunity to make big changes in your business model,” Wight said.
Though there haven’t been many business model changes at Twisters Burgers and Burritos, COO Bahjat Shariff said it has been “extremely difficult and challenging” to keep operations as normal as possible over the past six to eight months.
He said the regional chain has mostly been able to stave off such changes as closing lobbies for an extended time and changing hours of operation, but service time has been impacted.
Keeping all the restaurants open has also meant that, almost every day, employees are shuffled from location to location either by taxi or, sometimes, even driven by managers – something that happened rarely before the pandemic.
“We try really hard, and we just want everybody to really understand that employees are working really hard and care deeply, and a situation (that) sometimes is not perfect, it’s not intentional” Shariff said. “It’s just harder than it’s ever been.”
As some restaurants focus on staying open, others are looking at ways to adapt to the new reality through architectural changes.
Ben Perich, vice president of Colliers International Albuquerque, said he has seen fast food and casual restaurant clients lean toward building new locations with smaller footprints, little to no dining room spaces and expansive drive-thru lanes.
“It’s hard to overstate how much more in demand the drive-thrus are,” Perich said. “I can think of very few free-standing drive-thru opportunities that are available, and I’ve got half a dozen sit-down in-line restaurants that are still vacant.”
He said drive thru-only models are attractive to business owners because you can operate a restaurant with fewer staff members.
A shift toward app-based ordering, something that flourished during the pandemic, is also likely to stay, Perich said.
O’Donnell also said that, in the long term, there may be more automation and fewer people in a physical space as businesses move to smaller buildings.
“Are we going to have a situation like that where (businesses) hire fewer people, and maybe you are ordering on an app or something like that, and going and picking stuff up, but you’re not actually talking to somebody behind a register?” O’Donnell said. “I think that these are things that businesses are going to consider going forward and, you know, it’s going to affect the way they do things.”