Deanna Marroquin has been busy lately. She and husband Sergio have been serving a steady stream of customers at El Taco Loco, located at 1221 W. Seventh St.

The couple are making plans for expanding their business: They plan to create a mural honoring medical workers and first responders in their restaurant, and they hope to bring a food truck out of hibernation.

As COVID-19 prevention protocols have been lifted and businesses return to pre-pandemic operation, Joplin restaurants report larger numbers of customers.

However, while regular business is returning for Joplin restaurants, the restaurant business is anything but regular.

Despite serving more customers, restaurant owners are struggling with inflated prices from their suppliers and with finding employees to replace the positions that got cut in the early days of the pandemic.

“Things slowly got better, but we’re still dealing with the aftermath,” Deanna Marroquin said. “I think a lot of people think everything will go back to normal. But that’s not how it works. It’s still happening, and we just have to figure out a way to work with it and get through it.”

Supply chains swamped

In some ways, things may be changing too fast. Food distribution in the wake of the pandemic is not able to keep up with demand, according to industry experts.

“Over the last six weeks, we have seen the market come roaring back faster than anybody would have anticipated,” said Mark Allen, chief executive of the International Foodservice Distributors Association, in a Wall Street Journal report by Jennifer Smith and Paul Page. “The startup has been, in many ways, as difficult as the shutdown. ... Everybody is trying to turn it on immediately, and the capacity might not be there.”

That is something Deanna Marroquin has noticed: Prices for ingredients have gone up, and availability of them has gone down. She said takeout containers are also a particular struggle to order at reasonable prices.

“Our supply prices aren’t dropping,” she said. “Their prices are staying inflated. We’re trying not to raise our prices because we know everyone is hurting. But it’s a struggle to keep prices reasonable and portions big enough.”

Damien Tiregol is the owner of Crabby’s Seafood Bar and Grill and Blackstone Gastropub, both in Joplin. He said seafood for Crabby’s has gone up about 30% across the board. For the burgers and steaks at Blackstone, beef has also increased significantly.

Yet people still order those entrees. Part of the problem is with food processing companies not being able to find enough employees, he said.

“Even at higher prices, there is still demand for them,” Tiregol said. “Manufacturers aren’t fully staffed yet, so they are not able to process enough product yet. From talking to vendors, it’s not that we don’t have enough product, just not enough people to process that product.”

Staffs shrink

That staffing challenge straining food producers has also hit area restaurants.

Tiregol said that a loyal core of employees who have worked for him for years have returned after the pandemic. But a number of part-time cooking and serving positions remain open. He said people turn down the positions for a variety of reasons, including a need for more hours, a reluctance to wear a mask while cooking or a feeling of being at risk from the disease.

Marroquin said her staff used to include about 27 employees. Now she is down to about six — all family members.

It’s part of a national trend, according to a report in the restaurant magazine QSR, which states that 40% of restaurants rate themselves as “severely understaffed.”

The report details a number of reasons, including an extended unemployment boost in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery package. The report also notes the pandemic exacerbated staffing problems that existed before the pandemic.

“I know a lot of employees don’t want to come back making what they were making before,” Marroquin said. “Before, we used to have people ask about jobs maybe once or twice a day. Now, no one does.”

Grateful for support

Despite the challenges and the transformed business landscape, restaurant owners say they are grateful for their customers.

Marroquin said she “felt the love” from customers seeking to support her business. She said other businesses and agencies, including the Joplin Police Department and even Tiregol, made regular weekly orders that helped them weather the storm.

Tiregol said that community members have helped him keep Crabby’s in operation and open up Blackstone last year.

“I appreciate the community support,” Tiregol said. “Whether it’s my restaurants or others, whether it’s takeout or coming in to eat, people have been great through this and helped local businesses keep going.”

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Joe Hadsall is the digital editor for The Joplin Globe. He has been the editor of the former Nixa News-Enterprise and has worked for the Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine.