Over the past year, there have been lingering effects from the COVID-19 pandemic — two serious surges of the illness itself, plus employee shortages, supply-chain issues and skyrocketing increases in the cost of food and construction materials.
So, in the midst of a plague and all these other problems, why in the name of Bobby Flay, would anybody start a restaurant right now?
“It feels like the last five months have been about five years,” admits Ali Randall, one of the co-founders of Juniper in Birmingham, which opened in December. “But I’ve daydreamed about opening a restaurant. I believed in this so much I thought if we don’t do it now, I will forever regret it.”
Randall and her partners at Juniper — Blake Posey and Alden Williams — are by far in the minority right now within the restaurant scene. They are first-time, independent restaurant owners, opening without the support of a corporate chain or a deep-pocketed financial backer. And they are doing so during “one of the most challenging times in the history of the restaurant industry,” according to Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Association CEO Mindy Hanan.
It certainly does not appear to be a growth industry at the moment. According to data from the National Restaurant Association, sales plummeted across the country by $240 billion in 2020, as nearly a quarter of Americans said they had stopped eating out entirely. By the end of 2021, more than 80,000 restaurants had closed permanently or long-term since the beginning of the pandemic, accounting for approximately 15% of the total in the U.S.
Those that remained often faced a daily struggle for survival. Staffing shortages soared as workers reconsidered their careers. A National Restaurant Association survey conducted in September 2021 — before the surge of the Omicron variant made the situation even worse — found that 71% of owners were having trouble adequately staffing their restaurants. “The employee part has been the hardest thing for most restaurants,” Hanan says.
In addition, rising food costs have gnawed at already-slim profit margins, forcing restaurants to risk alienating customers with significantly higher prices. And it’s not just big-ticket items like steak and seafood. Even something seemingly as innocuous as limes, a staple in many cocktails, have doubled in price over the past year.
Yet it was within this atmosphere that the founders of Juniper decided it was the right time to fire up the grill and open the doors. Randall and Posey, who met in 2019, have both worked at restaurants and bars for several years and had each contemplated eventually starting a place of their own.
“During the pandemic, we had so much time to think about what we really wanted to do,” Posey says. “A lot of people have left jobs and found new career paths. I talked with Ali about (opening a restaurant) several times.”
Then when a space became available in Birmingham’s popular Forest Park/Avondale neighborhood early in 2021, they decided to take a chance. They signed a lease in March, with plans to open in September.
Almost immediately, they began running into delays.
Even the basic matter of filling out paperwork and securing permits took longer than expected, because city officials still were not handling such requirements in person. As a result, everything had to be done through email or over the phone.
That turned out to be a minor problem compared to the issues created by the knotted-up supply chain. Randall says they ordered new tables and chairs for the restaurant last June, only to discover it was going to take nine months for them to be delivered.
“That forced us to get creative,” Randall says. “We went out and found a lot of our furniture from estate sales and local shops. It made things a little different than we wanted, but in a good way.”
Even established restaurant owners have been compelled to come up with some inventive solutions over the past two years. For example, in an attempt to bypass supply issues, Vintage Year in Montgomery started a hydroponic farm located inside shipping containers behind the restaurant to grow lettuce, herbs and other produce. “During the pandemic we became our own supplier,” owner Jud Blount says.
Blount also is preparing to open a new Italian restaurant in Montgomery this year called Ravello. When executive chef Eric Rivera had a hard time finding a supplier for silverware, he went online and purchased what was needed through multiple offerings on eBay.
“It doesn’t all match. But it’s a bunch of vintage silverware that looks great, and it saved us a ton of money,” Blount says. “Over the last two years we’ve gotten really good at adapting and pivoting. We can pivot on a dime. The pandemic made us look at our business differently and try to react quickly to whatever is coming at us.”
Hanan says that type of ingenuity and flexibility has been a common trait among restaurants, both old and new, since the start of the pandemic.
“Our entrepreneurs have been innovative and have learned new ways to do business,” Hanan says. “The restaurants that were already open in 2020 created the new ways to do business. So, the ones that are opening now actually have the advantage of looking at other people’s experience to see what has worked, rather than being the ones to try to figure it out.”
The owners of Juniper figured out enough things that they finally were able to open in December, just in time for the Omicron variant to crash the party. Both Randall and Posey were briefly sidelined with the virus, and the surge made it even more difficult to remain fully staffed.
“Finding good hires in restaurants can be difficult anyway, because you can’t really rely on a recruiting service or anything,” Posey says. “Then we started having staff call in sick with Covid. I reached out to everyone I know in the industry to help us find other connections.”
Eventually, the surge subsided, the weather warmed up, and Juniper became one of Birmingham’s buzziest new establishments. The rear courtyard is proving to be particularly popular for post-work cocktails, and Posey says there are plans to expand the food and drink menus and begin holding regular events.
So in the end, was it all more difficult than expected?
“Since this is our first restaurant, we don’t really have anything to compare it to,” Randall says with a smile. “Maybe this is always how hard it is. We had no clue. But we’re learning.”
Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.
This article appeared in the May 2022 issue of Business Alabama.