SRU professor prepares students for post-pandemic restaurant industry


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Restaurants have been particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated safety restrictions, but a Slippery Rock University professor is preparing her students to embrace the challenges the industry faces when restaurants return to operating in a post-pandemic environment.

Dec. 18, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Restaurants are among the businesses most adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly by the state government's occupancy restrictions intended to reduce the spread of the virus in places where people gather. A Slippery Rock University professor who teaches a Food and Beverage Operations course recognizes the challenges but also sees the opportunities and lessons for students.

"We've never had anything that has crippled the food and beverage industry quite like this," said Mary Jo Ross, associate professor of hospitality and tourism management. "Not only are shutdowns devastating to the people who own the restaurants and those employed by the restaurants, but it sets off a chain reaction of product supply and demand that is felt all the way back to the farms.

"For example, the food that restaurants were going to serve this weekend was ordered a week and a half ago. Then, when these products get backed up, there's not an outlet for them and consequently we have food wastes and shortages and all kinds of other things closely tied to restaurants being open."

Many restaurants either have or will close permanently because of pandemic-related disruptions. According to the National Restaurant Association, 17% of U.S. restaurants - about 1 out of 6 - have closed long-term or permanently. Also, 87% of full-service restaurants (independent, chain and franchise) reported an average 36% drop in sales revenue, this for an industry with already small profit margins, averaging 5-6%.

"The good news is that we are still studying and working in a field that will not go away," Ross said. "The restaurant industry will come back around -- there will be fewer restaurants than what we have now because of the pandemic -- but consumer confidence will return and people are going to want to enjoy themselves outside of the home again. You can't order a nice evening out with friends online or and have Amazon deliver a family celebration or a wedding reception to you. Our industry is still going to be there to support that when the pandemic is over."

Mary Jo Ross


Ross said that when restaurants are able reopen and operate as they did before the pandemic, there will be opportunities for startups and other ventures because of the increase in demand and fewer restaurants that remained in business. But the success of restaurants will be determined by the owners who are able to adapt and learn.

"I tell my students that right now this is such a unique situation and through the pandemic they could see the spectrum of what could possibly happen in this industry," Ross said. "There are no wrong answers at this time, based on the fact that we're dealing with something that no politician or no business owner was ever prepared for. But they must learn from this. Don't make rash decisions, and make sure they gather all the data that they can to be properly informed."

The 20 students in Ross' Food and Beverage class last semester looked at more than just data; they also received insight from restaurant executives from across the country. Because the class was conducted online, Ross was able to have guest presenters speak to the students. They included Pawan Pinisetti, executive chef at the Greystone Hotel in Miami Beach, and Don Fox, CEO of Firehouse of America, which is known for its fast-casual restaurant brand, Firehouse Subs.

"I've been blessed to have contacts that have allowed me to bring the realities of our current situation to our students," Ross said. "Since the hospitality industry is global and outside of what our students see on a daily basis, we've had executive chefs and CEOs from across the country talk to them. Gaining access to that level of experience and knowledge is something special.

"My goal is to make sure that our students have the best tools to move forward in their careers so they can elevate themselves into leaders, whether that's management positions if they choose to go the corporate route or if they choose to be entrepreneurs. They need to understand that operating a restaurant is not an easy thing to do and the pandemic has underscored the importance of running a restaurant effectively."

For more information about SRU's resort, recreation and hospitality management programs, visit the Hospitality, Event Management and Tourism Department webpage.

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