Carson City restaurants hop from pandemic frying pan to prices on fire

Chuck McCray and Tee Jay Saputra smile from behind the Tee Jay’s Corner Café counter in Cactus Jack’s Casino. “It was scary opening during the pandemic, but we both see it as the hand of providence was knocking. And who are we to say no,” McCray told the Nevada Appeal.

Chuck McCray and Tee Jay Saputra smile from behind the Tee Jay’s Corner Café counter in Cactus Jack’s Casino. “It was scary opening during the pandemic, but we both see it as the hand of providence was knocking. And who are we to say no,” McCray told the Nevada Appeal. Photo: Faith Evans / Nevada Appeal

Double shifts every day, more customers than they can accommodate, and Yelp reviews that make you want to pull your hair out – that’s what recent post-pandemic-restriction months have looked like for Jayme Watts and Tony Fish over at Sassafras Eclectic Food Joint.

“Half the people in here right now are in training,” Watts told the Nevada Appeal, eyeing the Sassafras dining room. “And they’re doing great! But we’re constantly training.”

The national trend in labor shortages and rising food prices has hit home for Carson City. Fish and Watts might be bearing the worst of it, but they aren’t the only local restaurant owners losing sleep over long hours and stressful conditions.

Help wanted signs and high demand

By Watts and Fish’s estimates, Sassafras has seen almost 25 percent more business compared to pre-pandemic levels. Getting employees in the door to meet that demand has been an uphill battle. Finding trustworthy, reliable workers is even harder.

“We’re turning down business. We turn down business every day because we can’t accommodate it, because of lack of staff,” Watts said.

When mandated restaurant closures first hit last year, Sassafras had to downsize to a skeleton crew to stay afloat. They picked up a “Feed a Cop” program at the time, offering free meals to on-duty officers —to support the community, and to get rid of perishable items. Recovering from that stress, hiring a full crew, and restoring full operations is going to take more time, Watts and Fish said. They’re hopeful that maybe by next year things will balance out.

Sassafras’ is not alone in their struggle. Doug Cramer, owner at Mom and Pop’s Diner, was unable to meet with the Appeal for a full interview, but he said over the phone that he wanted to add that all restaurants are struggling to find employees. Usually a seven-days-a-week restaurant, he’s had to reduce services to six days per week under labor shortages.

Squeeze In has also announced reduced hours and intermittently closed locations in Reno and Carson City, all because of a lack of staff — specifically, a lack of cooks, a social media post said.

Juan’s Mexican Grill and Cantina owner Juan Salazar said he’s in need of more employees, but not just anyone. He really needs kitchen experience.

“Everybody wants to transition over to the front of the house. It’s the back of the house, which is the kitchen, that we’re having the issues,” he said.

He added that he has seen a lot of cooks leave and go into construction. When casinos and restaurants had to lay off staff last year, kitchen workers found construction opportunities. Salazar said he’s holding out until winter, hoping that cold outdoor temperatures will lure some pre-pandemic cooks back indoors.

But waiting for colder weather puts restaurants in the hot seat. Demand for services — both dine-in and take-out — is skyrocketing. Even if it ends up creating more workers six months or so down the line, restaurants need employees right now to get them through tourist season.

And, ironically, there’s a chance that pent up demand will lower to normal levels by the time restaurants manage to hire staff to meet demand.

It’s more than just getting bodies in uniforms. They need talented workers today, and they need to train them, all while still filling more hungry mouths than what they’re used to.

Food prices on the rise

Not all restaurants are facing labor shortages. In fact, for Jerry Massad, owner at the Cracker Box, it’s business as usual – except for rising prices.

Back in March 2020, he bit the bullet and used his business savings to keep all of his staff on, even during the state-mandated closure.

Jerry Massad, owner at the Cracker Box, helps an employee with the register. “The reason that we survived (the pandemic) is because my parents were both raised during the Depression,” he said to an Appeal reporter. “Being a pretty good business manager, I have money socked away. So it helped us get through the rough spot.”


“There were only one or two people that wanted a conditional layoff. Everybody else wanted to work, so we just found stuff for them to do,” Massad said.

He said he knows not all restaurants were in a position to do the same, but he does encourage other business owners to have reserves so that they’re prepared for situations like the pandemic. He saves ahead of time so that he can keep turnover low and avoid changing menu prices.

The latter has been difficult in recent months. Massad said, by his recollection, he’s held the same pricing since 2019.

That’s no easy feat – Tee Jay’s Corner Café in Cactus Jack’s Casino is all too familiar with the pricing dilemma. Owners Chuck McCray and Tee Jay Saputra opened their new location back in November, catching the last wave of pandemic restrictions. They’ve been shocked at how costs have fluctuated since then.

“We see things change daily in terms of market prices,” McCray said.

“For example, the chicken when we started this business was $23 for 10 pounds. Now it’s $46,” Saputra added.

While they’re not new to the food handling industry, this is their first time running a physical location. Lots of their frequent customers know them from the Carson City Farmers Market; they’ve been working pop-up booths for over a decade.

Writing a set-in-stone menu has proven difficult, they said. McCray and Saputra are still learning how to set their costs so that they can pay the bills while still bringing in customers.
Salazar at Juan’s is also debating whether to raise prices.

“Believe it or not, even mayonnaise has been affected. Mayonnaise has gone up, almost double the price. Typically it’s about seven dollars for a gallon of mayonnaise. Right now it’s sitting at 14,” he told the Appeal. “How do you keep your staff and not raise prices? And still try to make money and make ends meet?”

He admitted that he’s wondering whether he should salary some of his veteran employees. The paycheck predictability would be mutually beneficial, he said.

The spike in ingredient prices has a few root causes, but the blanket answer is that it’s all pandemic-related. Business Insider attributes it partially to inflation, shipping delays and rising shipping/fuel costs, the national labor shortage, and droughts.

Jayme Watts and Tony Fish, owners at Sassafras, are racing to get employees through their door. “We did a pretty good business pre-pandemic, but we’re doing even more business now. So 100 percent right before the pandemic, versus 100 percent now, I don’t even know if we could do that,” Watts said.


The upside

Juan’s downtown location has that fresh, newly decorated restaurant feeling. Yellow, green, and red walls; bright flowery paintings and wall hangings; mariachi music filling the dining room. They opened this second location back in January. It’s their third time hosting a downtown location, and they’ve negotiated a deal to where they’ll probably stay on the corner of Telegraph and South Carson Street for the next decade.

“We have a strong customer base, and that’s what solely made my decision to come here downtown,” Salazar said.

In fact, Tee Jay’s, the Cracker Box, and Sassafras said the exact same thing: it’s great customers that kept them going through mandated closures, to-go ordering, and tight pandemic times.

Salazar has yet to break even on his new downtown location, but he’s confident that will change soon. He’s even looking into adding live music to his dining room and vegetarian options to his menu.

Over at Tee Jay’s, McCray and Saputra were excited to share how their love of clam chowder turned into a fundraising event.

“Early on, I wanted to have Manhattan clam chowder because people really love my New England style clam chowder,” McCray said. “So we were able to do something where we made a big pot of Manhattan clam chowder, and we said, ‘Look, we’ll give it to you. All we ask is that you put a donation of your choosing into the pot.’ And then we donated it to the homeless program through FISH.”

They were both pleasantly surprised by how many people sampled the chowder and made a donation.

“They couldn’t say no. They tried it and they liked it,” Saputra said. They’re thinking about adding it to the menu once it gets cold outside.

Sassafras usually runs their own fundraising and LGBTQ+ pride event this time of year, Sassabration. Fish and Watts lamented that they’ve had to cancel it, without any time to plan. But there’s still a light at the end of the tunnel for them.

“We’re going to close again at the end of July, and we’re going to go on vacation,” Watts told an Appeal reporter, smiling. “Life is too short… and all the staff is looking forward to it. They need a break. Everybody needs a break.”


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