Despite recovery, San Diego economy remains ‘fragile’

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Just after 10 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, staff at Kearny Mesa’s Tahini Restaurant were busy preparing the lunch rush for its chicken and steak shawarma.

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

These days, Shabaik is focused on opening a cafe 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 seemingly lost their jobs overnight after coronavirus stay-at-home orders went into effect.

“We were definitely shocked at how everyone was when the lockdowns were put in place,” Shabaik said. “We saw sales drop overnight.”

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

These have now disappeared, as the economy has reopened.

But while the unemployment rate has fallen from a peak of 15.9% to 4.2%, the situation is still not completely stable.

“The economy is healthy but fragile because when employers can’t find enough workers to meet their needs, they can’t stay open all the time,” said San Diego Workforce Partnership CEO Peter Callstrom.

Callstrom noted that companies in the service sector are struggling to find workers. Many retrained for other fields or left San Diego. Overall, employment is about 5% lower than it was before the pandemic in San Diego County. But this gap reaches 15% for the leisure and hotel sector.

That, combined with inflation at its highest level in 40 years, is driving up costs for everyone.

Shabaik said it created something daunting for restaurants. As Tahini is back to his prime, he has had to raise prices and has multiple openings, despite his home environment and commitment to paying above the minimum wage.

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