Brevard County restaurants struggle to keep going amid surge in COVID-19 cases

Business owners deal with staffing shortages, masking, slowdowns in sales

Tuscany Grill staff members Emily Rushing; server, Christine Guadalupe; general manager, Gina Pierce; owner and Eric Anderson; executive chef. The restaurant is located in the Park Place at Suntree shopping center at 7640 N. Wickham Road, in Melbourne
Tuscany Grill staff members Emily Rushing; server, Christine Guadalupe; general manager, Gina Pierce; owner and Eric Anderson; executive chef. The restaurant is located in the Park Place at Suntree shopping center at 7640 N. Wickham Road, in Melbourne (Tim Short, Florida Today)

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – After 15 months of ups and downs for restaurants, July arrived full of bright expectations.

“Oh my gosh, these people were so happy,” said Gina Pierce, owner of Tuscany Grill in Suntree. “Things were relaxing.”

Her servers took off their masks. She and her husband started going out to dinner again.

“That lasted about 13 days,” she said. “We were geared up to have a great off-season. And now I’m just watching it come to a screeching halt.”

Restaurants have been dealt some potential knock-out blows from pandemic-related occupancy limitations, mask wars, staffing shortages and the rising cost of food and other supplies. Surges in infections caused by the delta variant is just COVID-19′s latest gut punch, according to News 6 partners Florida Today.

[TRENDING: Death toll from Haiti earthquake nears 1,300US mulls COVID vaccine boosters for elderlyHere’s where Fla. unemployment accounts stand after PIN resets]

“It’s like Groundhog Day all over again,” Pierce said.

Tuscany Grill has a large private room often used for birthday parties, club meetings, receptions and seminars. Several events were on the schedule for the coming months. Now the cancellations are coming in; 170 in one day.

“Saturday, we had a party for 75 that’s now 25 to 30,” she said.

Staffing shortages

At Nosh in Cocoa Beach, owner Jun Insisiengmay has stopped lunch service because of a lack of staffing. The restaurant is now open five days a week instead of six.

He’s watching what happens with the pandemic and plans to follow state, county and municipal guidelines in the coming weeks, but he doesn’t want a repeat of last year’s mandated restrictions. He fears his restaurant won’t survive.

“We actually had to decide whether or not we would shut down or try to struggle and stay afloat,” he said. “I had to furlough a lot of team members. That hurt me a lot.”

He racked up credit card debt just to keep Nosh operating.

[ADD YOUR BUSINESS TO THE FLORIDA FOODIE DIRECTORY]

Like at Tuscany, Insisiengmay had seen business pick up this summer. He attributes that to summer tourism as well as people feeling more comfortable because of the vaccine. Recently, he’s been seeing a slight drop in customers.

“I will abide by all the rules that they might enforce,” he said. “But honestly, shutting down again would hurt all businesses everywhere. And I almost guarantee you I would not be able to stay open.”

Closing, he said, would be devastating not only for him but his staff and their families, too.

Tely Tse, who owns Tely’s in Suntree, also has suspended lunch service because of staffing issues, plus he’s seen about a 15% slowdown in dinner service.

Masks again

Pierce said all of her staff is vaccinated, too, and they’re all wearing masks again.

Some restaurant owners are hesitant to ask all customers to mask up again after dealing with angry protests from previous requests.

Emma Kirkpatrick closed Ossorio Cafe & Bakery, her Cocoa Village restaurant, for a few days recently after a staff member was diagnosed with COVID.

She now has the CDC’s mask recommendations posted on the front door, and masks are available for anyone who doesn’t have one. Still, she and her staff aren’t asking unmasked patrons to leave as they did earlier in the pandemic.

Nosh is similar.

“I like for people to decide what they want to do,” Insisiengmay said. “But if the city of Cocoa Beach decides they want us to wear masks, I’ll honor that request. We do have guests who wear masks coming in, and take them off when they sit down.”

Like Insisiengmay, Djon Pepaj, who owns several establishments in Indialantic and Melbourne Beach, is being cautious, but he doesn’t want to go back into lockdown.

“I do take it seriously,” Pepaj said, “but eventually we have to conquer it.”

Pepaj opened Djon’s Village Market in Indialantic in late June 2020. The business includes groceries, prepared foods, a restaurant, multiple food and beverage bars and a rooftop bar.

A few days after opening, he was hospitalized with COVID-19.

The pandemic delayed the opening of some features in the market, including a martini and champagne bar, an outdoor taco bar and a ramen and sushi bar. Now, most are open, and Pepaj said his customers feel liberated, thanks to the vaccine.

Some are wearing masks again, but most aren’t, he said.

The future remains uncertain and precarious.

“I personally feel that nothing is going to get better until mid-summer next year,” Insisiengmay said, “and that involves our nation getting a better understanding of all the COVID variations.”

Pierce still has multiple holiday parties scheduled for later in the year. She’s hoping things turn around and those events don’t cancel.

“You try to stay optimistic,” she said, “and good things still happen. You have to keep a sense of humor and be very, very thankful for what we do have, and just hope we get through it.”


Use the form below to sign up for the ClickOrlando.com Florida Foodie newsletter, sent every other Wednesday.