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March of 2022 marks two years since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Nevada. “Changed by the Pandemic” is a KUNR series featuring stories from people whose lives and careers have been drastically altered by the pandemic.

Northern Nevada restaurant owner reflects on fighting to stay afloat during COVID-19 pandemic

Two women holding coffee mugs are posing for a picture inside a restaurant that they own. They are smiling.
Shane Trotter
Shane Trotter Photography
Shila Morris (left) and Kay Salerno are sisters and co-owners of Squeeze In restaurants in Nevada and California.

Few business sectors have been hit as hard by the pandemic as restaurants. In fact, the industry is down $65 billion from 2019’s pre-pandemic levels.

KUNR’s Kaleb Roedel spoke with Shila Morris, the co-owner of the Squeeze In eateries in Nevada and California. Even though Morris had to close some locations for good, her family business has fought to keep most of them afloat.

My name is Shila Morris, and I am the co-owner and co-chair of the Squeeze In restaurants. Two years ago, when everything shut down, it was such a dramatic time in our lives. And being a family business and having our entire family livelihood depend on this business economically, spiritually, emotionally, mentally, our careers, our identities, everything wrapped up in this restaurant, and immediately, we had an 85% drop in revenue literally overnight. Not an 85% drop in the bills that were due or your rent payments or your schedule of people coming in.

April 2020 was one of the darkest months of my personal life and for our family and our family business. It was so incredibly difficult those first few weeks of March. There was almost this high of “We’re gonna do it, and we’re gonna rally, and we’re gonna figure it out.” But as the weeks slogged on, it got scarier and scarier.

But all of a sudden, all your kids were home, too. So for our children — we had three children, elementary school kids, at home — watching mom and dad try to save the family business, there was no way to separate them from that. The kids heard every conversation, they saw every emotional breakdown when a landlord said they wouldn’t give us rent forgiveness or a vendor said they wouldn’t give us credit or they would, but that $50,000 bill was going to be due in the next three months.

The biggest challenges of the last two years, I think 2020 can be summed up as the biggest challenge being just survive, right? We saw, I think, one in five restaurants — independently-owned restaurants — went under. We lost a couple of locations, so we were certainly not spared from that. So the survival and the kind of marathon aspect of 2020 was the toughest part of it.

In 2021, I would say the obvious answer — that I would suppose most business owners would agree with — would be the labor shortage. The labor shortage was extremely difficult because it wasn’t anticipated. So, once we got through 2020, you knew we’re in this for a slog, we’re in the ring, we’re gonna take the hits, we’re going to take the punches, but June 2021, restrictions are lifted, and everyone celebrates, and we get really excited. And then we face this massive labor shortage. And us, personally, we were trying to be extremely proactive. We’re giving raises; we’re giving incentives; we’re giving bonuses; we’re posting on all kinds of different places; we’re asking for referrals. But it continued to get so hard on our associates and our staff that we finally had to do, kind of, a hard stop of “Hello, we are closing on Fourth of July. We’re giving everybody a day off, and we’re drawing a line in the sand that we will no longer put the mental health of our associates on the line.”

The biggest lessons that I’ve learned along the way, and what we’ve learned along the way through the pandemic, a lot of it has to do with that kind of first piece around 2020, which is “Don’t quit,” right? And that’s just plain good business advice in regular times. With that level of commitment and passion comes the resourcefulness to get creative, right? If you can just get creative enough. And so we did. We got creative in a lot of different ways. We hosted five-hour telethon-esque Facebook Lives, where we raised money to sponsor hot meals for hospital workers, which funneled through our restaurants and literally saved the family business for the six weeks before PPP came through; we would not have made it.

A brightly-colored restaurant is full of people sitting at tables.
Kaleb Roedel
KUNR Public Radio
People eat inside the Squeeze In restaurant in Northwest Reno, Nev., on Saturday, March 26, 2022.

I’ve always considered a restaurant to be so much more than a place where people have a transaction where they buy food. And so understanding that restaurants become a natural hub for a community and for a family, they become a place where memories are made, where associations happen, where meetings, where important decisions, where engagements, where announcements or graduations are celebrated. It becomes this essential part of the fabric of the story of our lives in terms of our experiences and where we experienced those things. And so understanding that the restaurant becomes that place for folks has helped us see its importance is so much more than that place that you go get bacon and eggs, right?

I will always be humbled and heartwarmed when I think about how many of the hundreds and hundreds of folks here in the northern Nevada community stepped up and said, “How can we help? What can we do? How can we serve? What do you need?” You know, folks coming in and just ordering extra meals and then passing them out to their neighborhood, leaving them on doorsteps. Leaving $100 tips for their servers that they know rely on those tips and gratuities for their income and supporting their families. It was so beautiful to see.

This story was produced by KUNR business reporter Kaleb Roedel and is part of the series Changed by the Pandemic.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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