In March of 2020, COVID-19 brought the world to a screeching halt. Now, more than a year later, the clouds may finally be clearing. In that time, however, people from all walks of life were affected by the virus. The restaurant industry, in particular, was dealt a heavy blow. It begs the question: what kind of damage was dealt, and how can it be mended? For an insider perspective, we spoke with Stacie Neill, Executive Chef of Margaritaville Niagara Falls. The following is a glimpse into her management of the popular eatery, the challenges of the pandemic, and what must be done going forward.
Neill has been the Executive Chef at Margaritaville for six years. In addition to overseeing the operation of the kitchen, she is responsible for quality control and stock management. Beyond these duties, she is committed to improving the restaurant experience as a whole. Generous portions are a must, to ensure diners get their money’s worth. “They don’t want to have to stop at McDonald’s on the way home because they’re hungry,” she explains. Additionally, she supplements the drink menu with craft beer from local breweries, showcasing the best Niagara has to offer. And when it comes to customers with dietary restrictions or little ones, Neill has a simple mantra: “The answer is yes. What is the question?”
Margaritaville, like most businesses, was hit hard by the pandemic. Located a stone’s throw from the famous Fallsview Casino, the establishment caters primarily to tourists. Between the casino closing its doors and the tight restrictions on travel, sales plummeted to less than a quarter of the year prior. What’s more, product suppliers pulled out, and those who remained hiked up prices dramatically, breaching contracts because they didn’t account for COVID. This placed the onus on Neill to find new products of acceptable price and quality, else be forced to restructure the entire menu.
It’s a position nobody would envy. For her, however, the most heartbreaking thing was seeing her team struggle to get by. “It hurts that our staff is unemployed,” she says. “I have my team members calling me or texting me going, ‘hey, how are you, chef,’ you know? And I try to reach out to them and make sure they know that we’re still there.”
With the introduction of Phase One, Margaritaville has resumed limited operations. In addition to offering take-out, patio dining is available to members of the same household, with a maximum of four people per group. Tables are spaced in accordance with physical distancing guidelines, and masks and temperature checks are mandatory for staff. Despite restrictions, diners are returning at a steady pace.
There are still complications, of course; Neill recently lost a key supplier, and is facing delays on special orders. Furthermore, the thought of pre-pandemic numbers looms large. “It almost seems like chaos, because things have been so regimented for so long,” she admits. Her team, meanwhile, find the prospect of another lockdown far more frightening than an influx of customers. Staff and management constantly check the numbers, wary of a spike in cases. Time will tell how things play out. That said, Neill envisions a busy future for Margaritaville. In fact, she expects the restaurant will be thrust into normalcy whether staff are prepared or not. “Niagara Falls is its own kind of beast,” she explains. “It’s not a case of if they come back. It’s when.”