It has been almost six months since our restaurant closed for indoor dining, and there does not appear to be a clear path to a safe reopening.

Experts are forecasting that more than half of the restaurants in the United States will close for good as a result of the pandemic. We continue to be positive at Ten Depot Street, doing takeout on a limited basis with a limited staff, like many of the other restaurants in our area. But that won’t sustain us in the long run.

Local restaurants set up for outside dining, such as Mamacita’s and Side A Brewing, La Grande, Terminal Gravity in Enterprise and Barley Brown’s in Baker City are doing fairly well. But business usually drops to an unprofitable level in the winter. If most of us open for inside dining now, we would not have enough business to stay afloat.

Eastern Oregon’s population compounds our problems. We have more restaurants than can make it. We love the variety, but without an increase in population or tourism, I don’t see how so many can survive.

With the ever-increasing minimum wage, paid sick leave, paid family leave and more, we should be charging $25 for a hamburger and $10 for a pint of beer. Who will pay that?

Credit card fees are another exploding cost of business. These fees have increased 77% since 2012. To help us break even, we have begun encouraging people to pay with cash or checks and charging for credit card use. For us it is a major expense, around 3.5-4% off the top. The credit card companies don’t incur that expense, the small business does. If we had charged for credit card use last year, our business would not have lost money.

Even before the pandemic, Ten Depot Street was planning to eliminate tipping and institute a service charge, which can be distributed evenly among employees and counted as wages. With a service charge, the whole staff could make at least $15 per hour without breaking the bank and the server could still make $25 per hour.

There are other reasons to get rid of tips, which I will get into in another column, but for now, my staff of five is loving tips. The money is evenly distributed to them. The service charge will not happen until the restaurant opens again and we actually have service.

What will emerge for us after this pandemic I believe will be a much smaller restaurant with only a few highly skilled employees who can do a variety of tasks. Also a simpler rotating menu, like we are doing now for takeout. We will continue to follow our passion and produce delicious nutritious food from local sources and continue to reinvent ourselves.

After all, we didn’t get into this business to get rich, just to have a job that we love. Trying to please everyone with endless choices can no longer be a choice.

About the Author

Sandra Sorrels is the owner of Ten Depot Street Restaurant, La Grande.

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