Pandemic economy a 'brutal time' for restaurants as costs rise, sales drop

OCONOMOWOC -- Some Wisconsin restaurants are closing their doors for good, despite being allowed to reopen. The reason? The rising cost of meat.

Following a two-month shutdown from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Between the Lakes in Okauchee reopened for a few days following the Wisconsin Supreme Court's ruling that invalidated the "Safer at Home" order.

Travis and Ericka Meeks

"The support was awesome. We ran out of food," said Ericka Meeks, owner of Between the Lakes.

It's a place where owners Travis and Ericka Meeks compared to that of the show "Cheers."

"We've been open for about a year and a half now, we were heading in the right direction," said Travis.

Now, their bar stools and booths sit empty. This week, the couple realized that they could not afford to reopen.

Between the Lakes in Okauchee

"We can't have somebody come for the same burger and a $4 price difference from week-to-week," Travis said.

The rising costs of meat delivered the final blow to their operations.

"It brings me to tears, it's sad," said Ericka.

The hits seem to keep coming for Wisconsin's restaurant industry.

Kristine Hillmer

"There's a number of challenges, social distancing, sanitation, staff ultimately trained to manage everything," said Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

COVID-19 has crippled meat processing plants across the country at a time when the demand for meat is rising.

"There's no shortage of animals it's just processing plants are down," Hillmer said.

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association says the situation may force establishments to make menu and price changes -- surcharges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hillmer stresses that any restaurant making such changes is simply trying to survive the crisis, and that a small wave of restaurants are already closing.

Between the Lakes in Okauchee

"It has been an absolute brutal time for them financially," said Hillmer. "You have to remember their sales overall were still down 70-90% on average so carry out is not going to sustain a business."

The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic is proving there are tough decisions ahead for some business owners -- which is why supporting your neighborhood establishments has never been more important.

"This was part of our family, we've come to love this community," Ericka said.

So, what can the public do? For now, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association is asking all future patrons of restaurants to be patient in the coming week and to be kind as restaurants try to operate under the new normal.