Park City restaurateur Bill White reflects on year of COVID
‘Uncertainty is the word’ looking forward, he says
It’s been a long, strange 10 months for one of Park City’s most recognizable restaurateurs.
Bill White, head of the Bill White Restaurant Group, owns and operates eight restaurants in the Park City area, several of them on Main Street. When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country in March, White, like many other business owners, was forced to close his doors. And while all eight restaurants are now open and operating with pre-COVID hours, White said the past 10 months have been tremendously difficult to navigate.
“COVID-19 has had enormous negative impacts on not just restaurants, but the hospitality and tourism industry in general,” he said. “I believe we all were expecting the local and national virus-related impacts to be leveling off by now, but it seems we collectively are taking one step forward and two steps backwards.”
White’s restaurants include Grappa, Chimayo and Wahso on Main Street, as well as Windy Ridge Café and Bakery, Ghidotti’s, Sushi Blue and Billy Blanco’s elsewhere in Park City and the Kimball Junction area. White also operates Bill White Farms, from which he sources many of the ingredients used at his restaurants.
One of the more difficult tasks of the past 10 months has been dealing with the unpredictability of it all. In the restaurant business, White said, uncertainty begets uncertainty.
“Uncertainty, especially in our industry, is the new paradigm and as you know uncertainty is an enormous destabilizing factor to business and the economy in general,” he said. “Additionally, that same uncertainty flows to our customers, further exacerbating declines in demand.”
White looks back on the shutdown in March — and how quickly it happened — and calls it “shocking.”
“We went from approximately 500 employees to zero,” he said.
As restrictions were eased, White said his restaurants were able to open back up in a limited capacity, and by July, nearly all employees were back on the payroll. Demand was relatively strong, he said, and rising through September. Then the weather changed.
“As we progressed through the autumn months and the ensuing colder weather, we saw a decline in general demand as outdoor dining became indoor dining,” he said.
White said they maintained employment levels in anticipation of the typically busy winter season.
“Through this period, up to Christmas, as the virus caused more demand destruction (such as the loss of Sundance), coupled with the incendiary national political environment, the promise of even a mediocre winter season was fading,” he said. “Christmas week through New Year’s was decent from a sales perspective, but the virus was taking out some employees and some of our stores had to close for a week or so due to the health concerns for our staff members.”
Many Park City restaurants turned to curbside pickup during the spring and summer, and some restaurants that previously had no takeout option at all started offering it. White said his restaurant group took a cautious approach.
“The management team and I discussed things like curbside pick up … and concluded that the implementation of these types of plans would be best if we metered them into our operations bit by bit,” he said. “Having multiple outlets allows us the benefit of adopting a ‘proof of concept’ approach, testing the process at one location before a company-wide rollout. We found that some of our locations could effectively implement things like curbside pickup and other locations could not.”
White said he ultimately thinks the curbside and to-go offerings were a good short-term measure, but only that.
“Overall, it is not a viable long-term strategy based upon our ‘bricks and mortar’ business model that cannot be rapidly changed,” he said. “For example, we are paying mortgages and rents for high-profile buildings and infrastructure based on a larger margin vs. a smaller, less formal dining setting that would have less overhead than we do.”
White’s restaurant operations applied for and received Paycheck Protection Program loans, but he said he considers them a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s funding for operational expenses. On the other, it’s still debt.
“The funds borrowed today will need to be repaid with tomorrow’s revenue and COVID-19 has put tomorrow’s revenue in question,” White said. “The PPP funds may be forgiven, but with the lingering specter of the virus and potential of major fundamental changes to the industry in general, meeting the thresholds for turning the loan into a grant may prove problematic and will need forward looking and careful planning.”
Looking forward, White said “uncertainty” was the word in 2020 and will continue to be for at least the first two quarters of 2021. White said he is setting realistic expectations for the near future.
“We remain cautiously neutral and vigilant as we look into the future,” he said. “I believe ‘flat’ is the new ‘up.’”
White had kind words for local officials and their response to the pandemic, in particular the Summit County Health Department.
“While nothing is perfect, the adaptations and responses to balancing public health concerns with economic impacts has been an enormous challenge for all our elected and appointed officials, police chief and officers, educators and health care workers,” he said. “All have had to bear the weight of taking care of our community. We owe them all a huge debt of gratitude.”
More than anything else, though, White said during this difficult year he has been buoyed by the staff members at his restaurants, who have “banded together” to weather the storm.
“It may be cliché to some, but in the service industry our staff are not able to work from home and they all are constantly on the front lines serving our loyal customers,” he said. “I want to thank them every day in every way for their bravery and tenacity.”
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Another ski season is in the books, and much to the relief of the restaurant industry, the outlook, like the weather, is looking sunny.