Looking back on the past nearly three years, one seasoned Boston restaurateur can’t help but marvel at how much the restaurant industry has rebounded since the pandemic struck.
“Looking back at what all of us had to endure, it was harrowing,” said Babak Bina, whose BiNa Family Hospitality comprises Bin 26 Enoteca on Charles Street, as well as jm Curley and its steakhouse, Bogie’s Place, in Downtown Crossing, and it newest addition – The Wig Shop a cocktail lounge in Downtown Crossing. “We, consumers, as well as all of us in the restaurant industry, luckily have a short-term memory. The resiliency of the U.S. market doesn’t cease to amaze me.”
As a restaurateur, Bina describes the fallout from the pandemic as “one of the most complex situations we’ve gone through in the last few decades.”
In addition to simply surviving COVID, restaurateurs have faced the challenges of getting guests to return to their establishments., maintaining their employees, navigating supply-chain issues, and “dealing ultimately with an incredible increase in prices, both for commodities and for labor costs,” according to Bina.
Bina’s restaurants have been fortunate in being able to employee, train, and maintain their current staffs, he said, “but replacement, if it were to occur, continues to be a challenge for qualified individuals.”
But Bina is also quick to add: “That said, we’re not dealing with many things that are front and center, such as COVID itself.”
Only one patron at Bin 26 in the past few months said they didn’t feel comfortable dining inside on a particularly busy Saturday night.
To remedy the situation, Bin 26 staff called around and were able to find dining accommodations for the patron at another nearby, less busy restaurant not owned by Bina.
While none of Bina’s restaurants are currently experiencing supply-chain shortages, and some of these establishments have rebounded to a level where they’re actually exceeding some of their pre-pandemic numbers, high costs remain a reality.
“Consistency” has also been a challenge for some restaurants, both in terms of being able to consistently attract patrons and in regard to being able to consistently get the products they need. (Supply-chain issues are currently not a problem for Bina’s restaurants, though, he said.)
Asked whether he expects to see his prices fall in the new year, Bina relied, “That’s the million-dollar question. When suppliers get used to charging what they’re charging, some – not all – have a tendency to want to continue charging what they’re charging.”
Moreover, Bina said, “The other major factor and headwind we’ll all be facing, both patrons and restauranteurs, is going to be continued increased interest rates by the feds in the coming year.”
Besides restaurateurs having trouble securing loans to open new locations, Bina said, “Obviously, costs for patrons in their daily lives will be affected, and we’ll have to wait and see how that will impact our businesses.”
Yet Bina expects some of the challenges that restaurants face going into the new year will have greatly diminished by the end of ’23.
“Being an optimist, I think we’re gone through some peaks and valleys, and by the fourth quarter of 2023, we’re going to be seeing some easing of the challenges and headwinds we’re going to be experiencing at the beginning of the year,” he said.
And looking ahead to the New Year, Bina is also optimistic that his loyal clientele will continue to patronize his establishments while his trusted staff will continue to ensure that they’re well accommodated.
“What we continue to enjoy at all our restaurants, luckily for us, is our loyal guests, as well as our incredible staff that makes it all possible,” he said. “We’ll continue to enjoy finding great wines, creating great cocktails, and being creative with our menus to bring something unique and worthwhile to our patrons.”