Zoe Olson, Executive Director, Nebraska Restaurant Association was our speaker at Lincoln South Rotary Club on February 12, 2021. Her topic - "Hospitality: Survival of the Fittest" - gave a view of the struggles of the industry during a pandemic.
Hospitality is important to the economy in the United States. As the 2nd largest industry in Nebraska it is incredibly important to the Nebraska economy. When tourists travel to Nebraska the top thing that they spend money on is restaurant.
Zoe was in her position about 6 weeks when the pandemic hit and she was facing new challenges.
Why are the restaurants impacted more than other industries during a pandemic? Zoe wanted to point out 10 items.
  1. Restaurants operate on a very low margin
    - Many have only a 5-10% margin - 10% is huge
  2. They need to have a great business plan and be flexible
    - During the pandemic they had to change their plans literally in days
    - March 16, 2020 Governor announced restaurants were limited to 10 people
    - Zoe said here phone "blew up" over night - restaurants had corn beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day - one restaurant had $20,000 and wondered what to do with all of that food
    - March 19, 2020 dining rooms were closed in Douglas and Sarpy counties and other counties followed
    - Some criticized the state for not doing a state-wide shutdown (Nebraska is geographically large, but population is small in many areas)
    - Without a state-wide shutdown it did cause some confusion as to what was in place
  3. The pandemic affected consumer confidence
    - People said they trusted the restaurants but were not sure about the other people in the restaurant
  4. Extra cost of PPE, modifications like plexiglass, more gloves
  5. Restaurants had to go to completely different business models
    - Fine dining hit hardest
    - People don't generally go to fine dining establishments for take out - they go there for the experience
    - Many closed for a while, others remodeled so they could accommodate curbside pick up or delivery
  6. Most member restaurants were more worried about staff than patrons
    - Staff spends a great deal of time together - working close
    - Some staff members did not want to wear masks and even contacted Zoe to ask her to tell the owners that they should not require it
    - Zoe says she is lobbying to see restaurant staff get vaccines sooner; they are around patrons without masks as they eat
  7. Ever-changing information was a challenge
    - What people hear and understand can mean two different things
    - There was confusion among owners, staff and patrons
    - Working with media, communicating with members was now more important for Zoe
    - Most restaurant owners did not typically stay on their computers during the day
    - She had to get members on board to use Email
  8. Restaurant sales were down 94%
    - There was limited financial support
    - Zoe keeps trying to piece support together
    - She asked the Governor to consider alcohol-to-go which was put in place
    - There is a higher margin on alcohol than food
    - Have not seen negative impact; it appears people are being responsible - drinking at home – not in car
    - PPP has helped
  9. Activists projecting false narrative is an issue
    - The current confusion about tip wage is one such thing; nobody works for less than the minimum wage of $9
    - Some restaurants put credit card tips on 1099; important to show all reportable income so that they can qualify for mortgage, etc.
  10. Lack of civility and civil discourse in society
    - No matter what your opinion, there are people that will tell you you are wrong, think you are an awful person, even if they don't know you
    - The limit 3rd Party Delivery charges was meant to help the restaurants which are already running on a very low margin
    - These delivery services charge the restaurant and the consumer; consumer can still tip what they want
Closing, Zoe mentioned that the restaurant industry is doing the best they can. But, we will lose some. It is not because of the pandemic, but that may have been the final straw.
During the pandemic Nebraska was #2 per capita for take out and delivery purchases.

Zoe Olson joined the Nebraska Restaurant Association and its educational arm, the Hospitality Education Foundation, as executive director early in 2020. 

Olson is a University of Nebraska graduate with a degree in journalism and a focus in advertising. She brings experience in marketing, public relations, communications, and organizational management to the Nebraska Restaurant Association. Previously, Olson served as executive director of Blue Rivers Area Agency on Aging.

Of her role with the Nebraska Restaurant Association, Olson says, “I am excited for the opportunity to join this dynamic organization that focuses on hospitality. Hospitality isn’t just a concept, it truly is, by definition, the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers. I can’t think of a better way to serve Nebraska and the future culinary stars of this state. I’m honored to join a team of professionals who are so dedicated and passionate about serving others.”

The Nebraska Restaurant Association acts as the principal advocate for Nebraska’s hospitality industry and promotes excellence in and of its membership. The association is dedicated to serving Nebraska’s restaurant and retail beverage industries by providing comprehensive education, proactive representation, aggressive industry promotion, and the highest quality member benefits. Connect on Facebook (@NebraskaRestaurantAssociation) or visit Nebraska-dining.org.