A conversation with Fontaine on restaurants, the impact of Covid


Pat Fontaine is the executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association (MHRA). He has worked directly and indirectly for the MHRA since 2004, when he started as a loss control specialist for the association’s workers compensation fund. He served as Membership Director from 2007 to 2012, then continued his career in the insurance industry by becoming an independent insurance agent.

As Director of Membership and Insurance Services for the MHRA, Fontaine worked with members on two association-approved insurance programs before assuming his current role. Fontaine has a long family history in the Mississippi hospitality industry. His grandparents operated Allison’s Wells Resort in Way, near Canton, from the 1930s until it was destroyed by fire in 1963. Famous for its hot sulfur baths and good food, it was home to origin of the Mississippi Art Colony.

Fontaine grew up on the property of Auberge La Font in Pascagoula, which his family operated from 1963 to 1999. Auberge La Font was a 191-room property, with a restaurant, lounge, and banquet facilities. His knowledge of the restaurant and hospitality industries began at the age of 8 when he helped organize banquets and took care of everything from front desk clerk to housekeeping. bedrooms.

Fontaine graduated from the University of Southern Alabama in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in commercial banking. He also holds his independent insurance agent license and is a member of the Mississippi Insurance Alliance.

Fontaine and his wife, Amanda, are the parents of three children, Wesley, Taylor and Sydney.

What is the purpose of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association?

“Our association exists to unify, foster, promote and protect the hotel and restaurant industries in Mississippi.”

When was the association created?

“It was founded in 1954.

How many members does the association have?

“The association has around 925 members, some of whom have several restaurants. This equates to approximately 1,200 member locations.

How many restaurants are there in Mississippi?

“Before the pandemic, there were approximately 4,800 restaurants in Mississippi.”

How have restaurants in the state behaved since the start of the pandemic?

“Overall, Mississippi restaurants have performed well in part due to our state’s leadership. I keep in touch with the Council of State Restaurant Associations and the National Restaurant Association and we have done well.

“The Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House have taken into account the needs of small businesses, including restaurants. They were responsive and received our communications and kept us informed. We have an excellent relationship with the offices of the three leaders.

What are the challenges restaurants face?

“The work is above all a challenge. In recent weeks, the Delta variant wave of the coronavirus has been a challenge. ”

How do restaurants cope with the labor shortage?

“Restaurants have gone out of their way to encourage employees to come and work for them, whether through a signing bonus, a 90-day bonus and by offering benefits never before offered to hourly employees at this time. industry such as medical insurance, retirement benefits and paid vacation. You see more offers to attract employees than you have seen before and that is not enough.

“Over the summer, restaurants were able to fill a large portion of their workforce positions with high school and college workers. This allowed them to have a larger staff at this stage. People were still not bringing in enough manpower, but were getting by and achieving decent sales levels. Now that school is back, I find the work difficult at the moment. This is true in all segments, including fast food, casual fast food, and fine dining.

“I don’t have specific numbers, but based on conversations with members over the past two months, many restaurants are in some cases operating with less than 50% of normal staff, probably less than in the last three. last few weeks. ”

Has the federal government given relief to restaurants?

“Yes. There was an almost a year-long effort to get a restaurant subsidy program. The restaurant revitalization plan went through the American Rescue Plan Act and allocated $ 28.6 billion to restaurants. Applications were open for the first 21 days to specialist groups such as women-owned operators, minority-owned operators and veteran-owned operators Everyone knew the $ 28.6 billion would go quickly.

“In the first round of applications, 1,907 Mississippi restaurants applied and only 511 received funding. These 511 restaurants received a total of $ 77 million.

That left $ 155 million in demand from Mississippi restaurants that was requested but was not funded.

“A law has been introduced for an additional $ 60 billion for restaurants. U.S. Senators Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith have asked for help, and U.S. Representatives Trent Kelly and Michael Guest have co-sponsored similar bills. Our delegation in Mississippi provided support. Everything is still at an impasse.

Why is it difficult for restaurants to find workers?

“People find a way to stay home and not work. I think part of this is due to the programs subsidized by the federal government. Improved federal unemployment provisions ended in Mississippi in June, but there are other federal programs. It was announced on August 17 that many beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will see their monthly allowance increase from October 1 and that many households are benefiting from the child tax credits. When those programs start to go down, I think you’ll see more people going back to work.

What makes running a restaurant difficult?

“People feel like you own a restaurant and earn millions of dollars. This is simply not the case. When you look at the profit margins in our industry, they’re low. For the average full-service restaurant in Mississippi and the country, the profit margin is between 4% and 5%. If you include alcohol sales, you can double that because of the alcohol markup.

“You are trying to sell a quality product at a low price or at a price that the consuming public is willing to pay. Food and labor are known as major costs and consume a good chunk of your sales dollar. You also have construction and utility costs and all other business related expenses.

How much have food prices increased in recent months?

“Since January, the cost of protein has increased by an average of 5%.

Ground beef increased 6.1 percent. Bacon rose 5.1% and steak 9.3%. The chicken got off it.

“The amounts that restaurants charge for their menu items have increased by almost 4% in the past 12 months. ”

What are the keys to a successful restaurant?

“It’s everything from the location of your restaurant to your concept, to the construction of your space, your menu, the staff, the training and the attention to detail. You look at the successful owners and operators of our state and you see them present in their businesses. It’s special attention to detail in combination with everything else.

Is this the right time to get started in the restaurant business?

“Right now, if you want to get into this industry, you can take the job. Jobs are readily available. If you’re serious about working in the restaurant industry, there’s never been a better time to get started.

What should people think about when eating out?

“We ask consumers for patience and understanding. It will take longer due to labor shortages. Be patient.”

How much should consumers tip when they eat out?

“People have different opinions, but I wholeheartedly believe in tips. Twenty percent is the usual tip. Right now, those working employees maybe deserve a little something extra. This is my personal opinion.

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