Big Guys owner Brendan O'Connor stands for a photo on June 23, 2022, at the restaurant on Roosevelt Road in Berwyn. | Alex Rogals

Big Guys Sausage Stand, 7021 Roosevelt Rd. in Berwyn, will mark a decade in business on July 13. An anniversary of this magnitude should be a time for boisterous celebration, but the fast-food stand is set mark the milestone with a subdued re-opening after staffing shortages forced the restaurant to temporarily close its doors.

Owner Brendan O’Connor has started a GoFundMe to help better position his counter-service establishment to return to business as usual and survive the coming months. To date, 600 donors have contributed more than $30,000 dollars to the GoFundMe campaign.

O’Connor said things “first went sideways” in April 2021 when staffing issues began impacting the business. It takes eight full-time employees to run the Berwyn sausage stand. Four core employees, including O’Connor and his cook who has been with him since opening in 2012, join two others with who have been with Big Guys for two years. The remaining four workers have become nearly impossible to retain. Some well-qualified employees left the business for higher wages in the city as workers became scarce during the pandemic, while others have proven to be unreliable and depart without offering reasons or giving little or no notice.

Look, I used to pay $500 a month for paper goods and now I am spending $500 a week for the same items,

brendan o’connor, owner

“I have really great long-term employees, but there are only four of us here now,” said O’Connor. “Two of my employees, including my cook are out recovering from surgery. I had no other choice than to temporarily close the restaurant.”

The closure itself puts Big Guys in a financial bind, but it is just another issue among many plaguing the decade old establishment. When restaurant dining rooms reopened after pandemic related closures, sales slumped significantly. O’Connor notes they were busy during the height of the pandemic when people were looking for family meals and carry out fare, but now that people are dining inside again demand for Big Guys’ family meals evaporated and fewer walk-in customers visit the Veltway mainstay. When business picks up staffing shortages make it impossible to keep up with demand. In response O’Connor said he has been forced shut down delivery apps and stop taking phone orders.

Large scale catered events, a lucrative aspect of Big Guys’ business model, suffered throughout the pandemic leaving the restaurant cash poor. Resulting cash flow issues forced O’Connor to defer maintenance on the HVAC system and ventilation hood —today the system is limping along and temperatures in the kitchen often soar above 120 degrees. Rising prices on everything from food to paper goods have also added to the problems facing the Berwyn business.

“Look, I used to pay $500 a month for paper goods and now I am spending $500 a week for the same items,” said O’Connor matter-of-factly. “And then when you have employees just up and leave without notice I become chained to the register and the grill leaving no time for anything else.”

The sudden need to man the kitchen often pulls O’Connor’s focus away from administrative tasks on a moment’s notice — and that, too comes at a cost to the struggling business. For example, O’Connor posted a job listing to Indeed, a popular employee-hiring platform when a sudden shift in staffing levels forced O’Connor back into the kitchen for a couple of days straight.

“Of course, I totally forgot about that job posting; by the time I got back to it I had like 70 applications,” said O’Connor. “That might sound like a good thing, but we have to pay $8 for every application we receive. So, I ended up with a $600 Indeed bill and not one of those 70 applications produced an actual employee.”

Outside of their mortgage, Big Guys was debt free as recently as 2019. The business was thriving thanks to a booming catering business, robust staffing and manageable expenses. With Big Guys’ “emergency fund” used up to help narrowly survive the pandemic the business owner admits he has taken on significant debt to keep from closing. He has put $20,000 of his own money into the business and has amassed $60,000 in credit card debt over the past few years. Current business is down 50% from its 2018-2019 “heyday” according to O’Connor.

“Over the last 10 years this has been the most challenging year of business. More stressful than launching with two babies and an 8-year-old, harder than operating for a year while battling cancer, and worse than two years of Covid,” wrote O’Connor in his GoFundMe appeal

While Big Guys is facing a perfect storm of diminished business capacity, compounding backend work, deferred maintenance and staffing shortages, O’Connor is confident he and his scrappy team can make it through this time with community support. He will use the donated funds to take care of glaring repairs and will reopen when his two core employees have recovered fully from their medical procedures — he anticipates that will be in early-to-mid July.

In the meantime, O’Connor has been focused on tailoring the Big Guys menu to highlight their most popular items. Expect a reopened Big Guys to be more burger-focused with a few sausages and rotating seasonal specials thrown into the mix.

“We need to recession proof the restaurant and that means we can’t do the foo-foo stuff anymore,” said O’Connor. “I just want a nice consistent flow of business with healthy margins. I don’t need to make a lot of money on this place.”

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