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Local restaurants adjust to life after masks, still searching for employees

Posted at 6:38 AM, May 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-19 09:03:31-04

CHESAPEAKE, Va. - Turning my Smoky BBQ Crispy Chicken salad into a wrap? No problem for Tori Tohak.

In just seconds, the general manager at Saladworks in Chesapeake's Greenbrier area securely wraps the lettuce, corn and chicken into a tortilla.

"We have a wrap special today," said Tohak. "I only put my good wrap-makers on the schedule because it is a technique."

But finding people to fill out the schedule hasn't been easy. Like so many other businesses, Saladworks is looking to hire.

"I'm optimistic we'll be able to find those folks but, no question, it's our biggest challenge right now," said MaryAnn Cohen, who with her brother, John, owns three Saladworks franchises in Hampton Roads.

The clock is ticking for Cohen.

With social distancing requirements in Virginia going away on May 28, things are looking more 'normal' than ever, which hopefully means more customers.

But more customers means more work and more urgency in getting Saladworks' salads, wraps and sandwiches made quickly.

A former nurse, Cohen is taking the rule changes in stride, adjusting as best she can.

She says the pandemic hurt business, particularly at her newest Saladworks locations in Greenbrier and Landstown Commons in Virginia Beach, where building the customer base is still a work-in-progress.

At the same time, Tohak says customers have been the saving grace through COVID-19.

"Even through the pandemic, we've had the same customers come in every single day. I know them by name and honestly that's the most important thing to me is because those people are supporting our business. That means the world to me," she said.

Tohak has been with Cohen for five years working her way up through the ranks.

The two agree, the relationship between owner and employee is family-like. It's something Cohen says she strived for from the beginning when she opened her first Saladworks location in 2014.

With Virginia's mask mandate now lifted in most situations, protecting that family is the top priority, Cohen tells News 3. Although customers can decide if they want to continue wearing masks, she's having employees, many young and not vaccinated, keep them on.

"You just take it a day at a time and you use common sense," said Cohen of the state's recent COVID rule changes. "I think that we're very respectful of everyone's individual preferences. My job as an owner is to protect my team and protect the people that maybe haven't gotten vaccinated yet."

A challenge for countless business forced to adjust once again in an unprecedented time.

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