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Restaurants scaling back operations as omicron exacerbates labor shortage

Eateries around San Antonio are closing dining areas, trimming hours, or even shutting down temporarily.

SAN ANTONIO — Hungry San Antonio residents are again finding "temporarily closed" signs in their favorite restaurants' windows. 

The holiday season is typically lucrative for restaurateurs. This December, sales dropped in a manner they had not since March. 

"That was not because consumers didn't want to come out," Texas Restaurant Association president Emily Williams Knight said. "It was because restaurants didn't have the staff in order to have the same hours or to expand for holiday hours."

Payroll data analyzed by economists at Gusto supports Knight's theory. They found that service industry staff worked fewer hours, on average, this December than they did in November or even the same time last year.

"It's not the start to 2022 that any of us wanted," Knight said. "The bottom line is that consumer demand is far outpacing labor participation, but we do see that settling out." 

Restaurant owners struggled to find employees prior to the omicron Coronavirus variant's arrival. Inflated wholesale food and supply costs also slashed bottom lines. 

Some are now closing their stores to protect staff, or because their servers have already caught the wildly-contagious mutation. 

"We get about 15-20 calls a day from people who want to know if we're open," Chamoy City Limits owner Ana Fernandez said. "It's disappointing to tell them we're not."

She and her employees agreed to shutter their ice cream shop, at least for the week, until Coronavirus cases subside. 

"What's happening right now with omicron is so contagious, I don't really even want to be open for the employees because we may make each other sick," Fernandez said. 

"You're going to see a very tough January and February for restaurants," Knight added. 

She says the restaurant association tells its members to hang on for the coming months, because the rest of the year may be especially lucrative. 

Knight points to alcohol to-go sales and new technology that's cut overhead costs. Texans are also spending more of their money reserved for food at restaurants instead of grocery stores, she says. 

"We're going to see restaurants come out of this very strong," she said.