Featured, Local News

Woodstock struggles to solve restaurant shortage

By Katy Savage

The Woodstock Economic Development Commission and Village trustees are trying to bring more food to town to accommodate a shortage of lunch options and a striking volume of tourists.

EDC chair Jon Spector said the “unprecedented surge in demand,” combined with lack of employees, has created an “impossible equation” for restaurant owners.

“We’re trying to solve a problem; it’s not an easy problem to solve,” Spector said at an Aug. 16 meeting.

Seton McIlroy, the vice chair of the Woodstock Village Trustees, echoed those concerns at an Aug. 10 meeting.

“We’re in the worst shape ever for food this year,” McIlroy said.

The discussion started when Beth Finlayson, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, approached the EDC and the Trustees after she said a Christian tour bus group stopped in Woodstock for lunch on a Monday in July — a day when most restaurants were closed.
“They assumed they could drop 44 people off for lunch,” Finlayson told EDC members. “The [organizer] was incensed.”

The tour bus, which had three more visits to Woodstock scheduled on Mondays, canceled all future stops, Finlayson said.  “That’s a symptom of what’s to come,” Finlayson said. She told the trustees it’s only going to get worse as foliage traffic picks up.

“It’s not going to get better until November. We need to proactively think about how to feed people,” Finalyson said at the Aug. 10 trustees’ meeting, suggesting a future ripple effect on tourism. “If they’re not treated well while they’re here, everything we’re working toward may be diminished.”

The trustees previously approved permits for three vendors to sell food on the Green through October. The board unanimously approved permits for two additional vendors on Aug. 10 — one for a nonprofit, such as a school club, and one to be used at Finlayson’s discretion. The Village Trustees are also waiving the $50 permit fee for food truck vendors and nonprofits.

Meanwhile, the EDC is considering short and long-term solutions as restaurant owners say they can’t find employees to stay open seven days a week. The EDC board turned down two proposals on Aug. 16.

The first was a proposal to purchase a tent, grill and tables for nonprofits, along with a $100 gift for each nonprofit to buy food, up to $2,600 in total. The proposal was turned down 4-2 after EDC member Todd Ulman said he’d fund the $2,600 from his own pocket, while Spector said he’d also chip in.

“It’s not the EDC’s job to pay for tents and crap,” said Ulman. Ulman, a former business owner from Los Angeles, urged the EDC to focus on helping businesses that are already established. He said providing a livable wage for employees was crucial and he called it an “abomination” some of Woodstock’s businesses don’t.

“People are going to come out of the pandemic and remember how they were treated,” Ulman said.

The EDC turned down a second proposal 3-2 to provide restaurant owners with a wage incentive to help them attract more employees.

Spector said many business owners were skeptical of the plan.

EDC member Mica Seely abstained from the vote, explaining she needed more information from restaurants. But the EDC’s discussion, which became heated several times, was far from over.

Some EDC members questioned food safety and liability. They also questioned the benefit of tour buses.

“I don’t know how much they add to the economy and I think they could be a rather large strain on restaurants,” Seely said.

Scott Smith, the owner of Red Toy Wagon Company, scoffed at Seely’s remarks, while Michelle Adams, the executive vice president at Billings Farm & Museum, also turned Seely’s notion down. Adams said they rely on tour buses and a year without them during the pandemic was hurtful.

“Last year not having the tour buses really did significantly impact us at Billings,” she said.

Other business owners also acknowledged similar problems.

Maria Freddura, the owner of The Daily Catch, told the EDC that her restaurant was closed until further notice due to lack of employees.

Freddura said she wasn’t opposed to food trucks on the Green but was “offended” the EDC was discussing it without business owners’ feedback. Freddura was also concerned that food truck vendors might not need to collect taxes, namely the 1% option tax, like restaurants do.

“As a business owner I take offense … that somebody can roll in on four tires, competing against me — who is open — and those taxes are not going to the community,” she said.

EDC chair Spector said he wanted to get restaurant owners in a room together to coordinate days they’re open and closed.

Spector also acknowledged the urgency to find a solution before fall tourism puts an even bigger strain on businesses.

“I’m uncomfortable with the pace we’re trying to make these decisions,” he said.

Spector said people rely on the EDC for solutions because it has a “pot of money” with no immediate use.

“We’re trying to do things because we have funds, we can see problems, but we don’t have as much engagement as we need with other parts of the community,” Spector said. “We really need community input to deal with these issues.”

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