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Despite recovery, San Diego economy still 'fragile'

worker tahini.jpg
Posted at 4:03 PM, Mar 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-15 21:28:28-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — On a recent Tuesday just after 10 a.m., the staff at Kearny Mesa's Tahini restaurant was busy prepping for the lunch rush for its chicken and steak shawarma.

"It pays homage to our culture and the places that our families come from, while still doing so in a manner that is easily visited by the American public," said restaurant co-founder Osama Shabaik.

These days, Shabaik is focused on opening a coffee shop next door and a new location on the UC San Diego campus later this year.

But in March 2020, he wasn't thinking about expanding. Instead, survival. At the time, hundreds of thousands of San Diego workers lost their jobs seemingly overnight after Coronavirus stay-at-home orders kicked in.

"We were definitely shocked the way everyone else was when lockdowns went into place," Shabaik said. "We saw sales really plummet overnight."

The coronavirus outbreak devastated what was then a healthy San Diego economy. Government stimulus loans to businesses, checks to families, and boosts to unemployment kept San Diegans afloat.

Those are now gone, as the economy has reopened.

But while the unemployment rate has declined from a peak of 15.9 percent to 4.2 percent, things still are not totally stable.

"The economy is healthy but fragile because when employers can't find enough workers to fill their need, they can't remain open at all hours," said Peter Callstrom, CEO of the San Diego Workforce Partnership.

Callstrom noted service sector businesses are struggling to find workers. Many retrained for other fields, or moved out of San Diego. Overall, employment is about 5 percent below where it was pre-pandemic in San Diego County. But that gap expands to 15 percent for the leisure and hospitality field.

That, along with inflation at a 40-year-high is pushing costs up for everyone.

Shabaik said it's created something of reckoning for restaurants. While Tahini is back to its full hours, it did have to raise prices and has multiple openings, despite its familial environment and its commitment to pay above minimum wage.