Businesses around Emory University are still vying to keep their doors open nine months after the Wheel last spoke to them. While the full return of students to campus offered an optimistic glimmer, the Delta variant and the national labor shortage have since dimmed that hope.
With the mass rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in the spring, many business owners felt a sense of relief as sales started to creep back up and some pandemic restrictions eased.
“For the first half of 2021, we were down about 25% from pre-COVID [revenue],” said Jennifer Johnson, owner of the General Muir at Emory Point. “In recent months, like June and July, we were down only about 15%, so we were definitely on the uptick. Then, obviously, there’s the Delta variant, so that put a pin in the business continuing to work its way up.”
In a January interview with the Wheel, Johnson discussed altering her business model to “reexamine the pay structure for all employees.” Yet, months later, she still faced drastic staffing issues. While Johnson said she wished that the General Muir could be open seven days a week, they resorted to five due to a lack of personnel.
“The restaurant industry definitely has its work cut out for it to say: We are a good place to work, we do provide benefits, we want you to have a good lifestyle, this is a safe place, this is not the hostile environment that you hear about,’” Johnson said. “To win people back into this industry is our next big project.”
Wagaya, a sushi restaurant in Emory Village, shared similar staffing concerns with the General Muir. Like in January, Wagaya is still not open for lunch Monday through Thursday.
“As much as we would like to serve as many people as possible and see peoples’ faces inside the restaurant, because of the short staff situation, we decided to close certain sections of the restaurant and accept more takeout,” said owner Takashi Ostuka.
While many restaurants prefer to operate at a full capacity to bolster sales, several said they currently lack the ability to do so due to a lack of personnel. This is a stark change compared to January, when staff members were vying for more shifts. However, with all students invited back to campus, there are now more customers than these businesses have the capacity to serve.
Otsuka attributed “a drastic increase in dining” to more students living on campus this year, and indicated that the surge in demand began the weekend students moved into dorms.
Although the General Muir and Wagaya have survived this tumultuous time, many businesses around Emory haven’t been so fortunate. Tin Lizzy’s Cantina in Emory Point and Lucky’s Burger and Brew in Emory Village permanently closed in May 2020. Rise-n-Dine in Emory Village also closed in November 2020.
Many returning students have not been on campus since the start of the pandemic and could already feel the absence of their favorite restaurants surrounding Emory.
“The most notable change, at least in Emory Village, is the closing of Rise-n-Dine,” Cece Rose (23C) said. “I was very disappointed. It was tragic.”
Despite the return of students, foot traffic reduced compared to pre-pandemic times, Johnson said. Regardless, she described the owners of Emory Point as “supportive.”
In an attempt to safely increase gatherings at Emory Point, there are movie screenings on the lawn outside the General Muir every Friday in September at 8 p.m.
While efforts to attract consumers are being made at Emory Point, Otsuka finds himself concerned for the restaurant’s future in Emory Village.
“Emory Village might not be the best location for us because tenants are leaving with reasons,” Otsuka said. “We need to find out why. Is it the landlord? Is it the community?”
Otsuka noted that the nature of operating a business in a college neighborhood has proven difficult because during the summer months and the winter break, there is far less business. That raises the question of whether the rise and fall of student customers is profitable enough for businesses like Wagaya to stay.
In contrast, a twinge of optimism emerges for business owners like Johnson.
“We feel very fortunate to be in the community that we’re in,” Johnson explained.
As the future of the pandemic remains uncertain, the same can be said about the businesses surrounding Emory.