Business

Year in Business 2021: Hiring a ‘nightmare’ as businesses bounce back from pandemic

Across the North Fork, it was business as un-usual again in 2021 as COVID-19 continued to influence the local economy.

In the spring, relaxed restrictions allowed businesses to reopen en masse and many people hung up their sweats and returned to the office as vaccines became more widely available.

From real estate to agritourism, business boomed on the East End as pandemic recovery continued. 

But that didn’t come without its own set of challenges. 

A year after businesses were battered by the pandemic, 2021 presented a new world of issues magnified by COVID-19, from staff shortages to supply chain woes.

Businesses again relied on federal assistance. In March, the American Rescue Plan provided an influx of stimulus funds to small businesses, including a Restaurant Revitalization Fund that provided more than $9 million to restaurants between Wading River and Orient.

In early May, then-governor Andrew Cuomo announced a “major reopening” of economic activity that lifted restaurant restrictions and bar curfews and allowed a variety of businesses to reopen, including amusement parks and entertainment venues that weren’t able to in 2020.

The reopening rush put a strain on local businesses seeking to hire seasonal workers and the hospitality industry was hit particularly hard.

One Greenport restaurant manager described summer hiring as “a total nightmare,” and used incentives, like $50 gift cards, to anyone that made a successful employee referral.

A mix of factors, from a lack of affordable housing to enhanced unemployment benefits contributed to the challenge of staffing, which was already hard enough before the pandemic.

Child care concerns, retirements and new variants also strained the workforce.

In September, Riverhead Chamber of Commerce president and newly elected town councilman Bob Kern told the Suffolk Times that staffing issues have persisted for several months. “At some businesses, people are demanding more money, which would bring the costs of goods up. [Some] have had to close their doors for a couple days a week because of that or because they couldn’t find anybody, even while schools were closed,” Mr. Kern said.

Magic Fountain in Mattituck, for example, was forced to close two days a week in August due to staff shortages.

“I lost seven people to colleges and then school started and some of the kids have a lot of after-school activities so they don’t want to work, so I’m literally down to a crew of nine people,” owner Chaudry Ali explained in September. “Usually, we have around 30 people and 25 in the fall.”

Warmer weather also brought the return of events like Alive on 25 in downtown Riverhead and dances in Greenport’s Mitchell Park. In Greenport, parklets were once again installed as an outdoor dining solution along Front and Main streets. Village business improvement district officials have said that they’re hopeful the parklets will become a mainstay in the village during the summer.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor suggests that unemployment on Long Island is inching back toward pre-pandemic numbers. The preliminary rate for October 2021 was 4%, down from nearly 6% in October 2020 and significantly lower than the 17.5% rate recorded at the height of the pandemic shutdown in April 2020.

Nearing the end of the year, the new omicron variant and a holiday surge in cases has already resulted in impacts on businesses statewide. As of Dec. 13, masks are required inside all indoor businesses and venues, unless they require proof of vaccination.

That mandate is in effect through Jan. 15, at which time state health officials are expected to reevaluate based on the current COVID-19 numbers.

Here are some of the top business stories that made headlines this year.

OPENINGS

• Peconic County Brewery opened in Riverhead in February with ten beers on tap, a view of the Peconic River and an elevated bar food menu.

Fine Fare opened a grocery store in the former Best Market in the TJ Maxx shopping center in March.

übergeek brewing opened in April in the former home of Moustache Brewing Company.

Wild Roots Wellness opened in downtown Riverhead in the spring and offers yoga classes, meditation and spa services.

Center Cuts, a popular butcher shop in Roslyn Heights, opened a second location in Mattituck in May.

Terra Vite winery opened under new ownership in the former Diliberto Winery after renovations in May.

Splish Splash was able to reopen in May after an entire season closed because of COVID-19.

Sounds, a Brooklyn based design studio, opened a pop-up in Jamesport next to the Jamesport Farmstead.

North Fork Seafood opened a kiosk below Anker restaurant in Greenport in May.

Peconic Bay Winery reopened under new ownership in May after being shuttered for eight years.

Lidl, a German discount grocery store chain, opened in the former Toys R Us building along Route 58 in June. The retailer has 11,200 stores in 32 countries.

Antigua Café, a Latino bakery, bar and deli, opened in June in the former Blue Duck Bakery on Main Street in Riverhead.

Hobby Lobby opened a craft store in Riverhead in June. The new 55,000-square-foot store located at Old County Road and Osborn Avenue is the chain’s 21st location in New York and joins more than 900 Hobby Lobby stories nationwide.

Privet’s Consignment Warehouse opened in downtown Riverhead in June, selling home furnishings from Hamptons estate sales.

Hook and Net, a new clam shack in Greenport that’s an extension of Alice’s Fish Market, opened in July.

Alpina, a cozy wine bar with a Swiss chalet vibe, opened in the former Industry Standard space in Greenport in July.

Suffolk Theater reopened in August at full capacity for fully vaccinated guests.

Southold General opened its cafe and market in Einstein Square in August.

Blue Water Fish seafood market opened in Wading River in September, featuring freshly caught fish and prepared meals.

D’Latte cafe in Greenport reopened after a long hiatus in November.

East End Food Market, formerly Riverhead Farmers Market, found a new home at the former site of Homeside Florist in Riverhead and opened in November. The market will be open seasonally through the end of April 2022.

Insatiable Eats opened in the former Michelangelo’s restaurant in downtown Riverhead in December.

Body Shok Fitness opened a 2,000-square-foot training facility along Main Road in Mattituck in December.

CLOSINGS

• Sunny’s Diner & Grill closed in August, citing challenges from the COVID-19 shutdown. The space is currently being renovated and Marc LaMaina, who owns several Lucharitos restaurants, is planning a Cuban-inspired restaurant slated to open soon.

PeraBell Food Bar closed its downtown Riverhead restaurant in July and sold the building to a developer. They first opened in Riverhead in 2015 and their Patchogue location remains open.

Michelangelo’s in downtown Riverhead closed in early 2021 after a brief stint: It had opened just months before the coronavirus shut businesses down in 2020. Chef Marco Barrila recently opened Insatiable Eats Creative Kitchen in the eatery.

Sweet Indulgences closed its doors in November after 29 years in Greenport.