DES MOINES, Iowa — COVID-19 put the restaurant industry in a deep freeze when it first spread across Iowa in the spring of 2020. Two years have passed since pandemic restrictions started, but the industry is still trying to reheat itself.
The Iowa Restaurant Association estimates about 800 restaurants have closed in Iowa because of the pandemic. While restrictions are largely gone, association president Jessica Dunker said restaurants are still struggling to profit because of rising costs.
“It’s been a really difficult year for the restaurant industry,” Dunker said. “We started out with supply chain issues…now we can get things, but they cost so much more. When you think about the prices consumers are looking at, that’s tenfold for us.”
Dunker said that impact is intensified for independent restaurants, especially as customers start to stray from high-profit items like appetizers and drinks.
“Ordering patterns have changed significantly,” Dunker said. “We see more people ordering water. We see people buying one drink instead of two.”
Chuck’s, an independent restaurant in Des Moines’ Highland Park neighborhood, is making its way back from the loss of business during the pandemic.
“It’s been nice to see more familiar faces from a few years ago before COVID,” said longtime Chuck’s employee Angelina Wilkerson.
However, Wilkerson estimates Chuck’s business is at 75 percent of its pre-pandemic level, which has led the restaurant to scale back its live music programs.
She hopes Iowans start to dine more at local restaurants while the pandemic recovery is still in progress.
“I encourage everybody to come out to try all of the local restaurants that were closed down during COVID,” Wilkerson. “If business picks up, we can stay open later and can have music on weekends.”
Some loyal Chuck’s customers such as Susan Bonnicksen are going to the restaurant more often post-pandemic.
“You just feel welcomed here, I’m not just another person walking through the door,” Bonnicksen said. “This is our duty. A lot of people really took a bad hit, and they’re taking a chance coming back to us.”
Chuck’s also said it will continue its free Thanksgiving meal tradition.