Local restaurant owners struggle to pay rent during COVID-19 pandemic

Local News

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Since March, restaurant owners around the Ozarks have expressed concerns about finding ways to pay employees and keep business booming. To no surprise, limited capacity requirements has resulted in less money on the table. This has made it tough for some businesses around town to pay their rent. Just ask Sean Matar, owner of Riad’s Burger & Gyros.

“Every month has been tough,” Matar said. “Especially downtown, the rent is pretty expensive.”

Matar says rent is as much as $12 per square foot per month. He’s been working long hours to avoid having his business evicted. While working overtime, Matar has been forced to get creative with how he makes money.

“A lot of the time, I will forward the restaurant phone to my cell phone, and I’ll just keep taking orders,” Matar said. “I’ve taken some [orders] at 1:30 when the bar is closed. It’s very atypical since we would typically be closed at 10 PM.”

Riad’s is normally open Tuesday through Saturday, but sometimes Matar will come in on Mondays to see if he can get orders in.

“It’s just really, really slow,” Matar said. “It’s turned into a full-time job of just cooking, which I love to do. But, it’s very stressful right now.”

Delivery services like Uber Eats, GrubHub and DoorDash certainly haven’t made things easier for him. Even when customers order something from his restaurant.

“They take a third of every dollar that you pay on there,” Matar said. “They collect 33 percent of [our orders] right off the top. They are great services don’t get me wrong, but if you can come pick up, that’s great.”

Fortunately for Matar, his landlord has been cooperative and understanding of his situation. While they’ve made it clear that they have financial obligations, Matar has been given rent reductions a couple of times. He pays as much as he can.

“My landlord has been absolutely a godsend in terms of patience at this time,” Matar said. “We’ve been fortunate they’ve been working with us.”

Shawn Kraft, owner and head wineslinger at Cellar + Plate, says the same thing about his landlords. His restaurant is in the strip mall on S. Lone Pine – right next to Fuddruckers. A couple weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, Kraft’s landlords gave him a rent grace period for two months. His rent is more than $3,000 a month.

“That was perfect for us,” Kraft said. “It enabled us to get our feet underneath us, come up with a game plan, a little breathing room. We were able to reach out to our employees and figure out what we were going to do on a to-go basis. The ownership group is very nice and cooperative.”

The grace period gave Kraft time to save up for his rent due in June. He’s now able to pay the rent each month. But, he still gets creative with how he runs operations. The health crisis forced him to become an active voice on social media.

“We had to make ourselves completely accessible day and night to messages on social media, and answer immediately.” Kraft said. “People want to get the first yes that they can get. ‘Hey can you have this food ready for me and my family today at 4:30? Yes, yes we can. Maybe I wouldn’t normally be there, but I will for that. I call it just turning into a ‘yes business profile.’ ‘Can you do? Yes. You don’t even know what I was going to say yet. Uh, doesn’t matter. Yes. We will do whatever people want at this time to make them happy and keep them in the business.”

When Ozarks First asked Kraft and Matar how people can help their business, they both gave the same answer: Make your orders directly through the restaurant.

Anita Zimmerman, a commercial real estate agent with Wilhoit Properties, says commercial renting rates for Springfield restaurants vary. A free-standing building’s rent is anywhere from $22-30 per square foot. For a restaurant in a shopping center that has a drive-thru, it can be $12-20 per square foot.

“It really depends which part of town you’re talking about,” Zimmerman said.

She says she hasn’t seen rates grow since the pandemic began. But, she does have some advice for local restaurant owners: Communicate with your lender/landlord.

“Recognize that everyone that’s involved in the process, from your bank to your landlord, they want you to be successful,” Zimmerman said. “It’s good for the economy. It’s good for a property owner to be able to have their businesses generate money so they can pay rent.”

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