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See an empty table and not getting seated? Here’s why.
In 16 years, Marcus Hall has never put up a “now hiring” sign. Until now. With staffing levels over 20% below normal at more than 50% of restaurants throughout the country, according to the National Restaurant Association, Hall is not alone.
“It’s been 15 months of total beatdown and a brutal battle,” says Hall, owner of The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar in North Hills. “Survive and advance. Keep on fighting, keep on swinging and keep on hiring. You can’t run the business without people. They are our most valued resource and always have been.”
Hall is trudging through an unheard-of glitch in hiring, where he may interview 20 candidates and only one will show up for orientation. The bodies are just not there, and scheduling is nearly impossible.
“You get up, look at your schedule and hope you have enough people that day,” says Hall. “We’re trying to create a fun work environment just like we always have, but it’s taxing when you have this mentality that creeps in, wondering if this employee is going to show back up tomorrow.”
A lack of staff makes service difficult. Patrons often go to restaurants and see open tables and don’t understand why they can’t sit down. It’s not because the owners don’t want the business—it’s because they don’t have the staff to take care of a full house.
“The restaurant operator doesn’t want to turn away business,” says Hall. “The last thing I want is a guest to come in, sit down and overwhelm the restaurant—and then have a bad experience. This is the time where if people really want to help local businesses survive, come out and support, but also come out and understand.”
So where did all of the workers go? That question is plaguing restaurant owners and there doesn’t seem to be a solid answer.
“I think the issue with hiring is, all of the sudden, this entire industry reopened, and we all went to hire people at the same time,” says so•ca and kō•än owner Sean Degnan, who says about 30% of his staff are new hires after shutting his doors twice since last March.
This basically makes the restaurant business a job-seeker’s market because positions are plentiful. Those who were not in it for the long haul may not be willing to go back through the up-and-down yo-yo that the business has been experiencing. Some restaurants, like so•ca and kō•än, are changing their model to entice workers back.
“We came back and we had a little staff retreat about how to reopen in a pandemic, and we talked about all of the things that would require,” says Degnan. “The first was paid time off if you were feeling ill. The next is that we need to start paying a living wage to everybody.”
Degnan has joined other local restaurants in working a living wage into his business model. By paying nontipped staff $15 per hour and changing the tipped base rate to a minimum of $7.25 per hour (versus the industry standard of $2.13 per hour), workers have more of an incentive to stay.
For Phoebe (name changed for anonymity), who works at a tip-sharing restaurant, it’s the tips at her high-volume location that keep her there. As a 26YO who is no longer eligible for her parents’ health insurance, part-time restaurant work does not offer her a safety net.
“For most people, the restaurant industry isn’t the end goal,” says Phoebe, who’s been in the business since she was 16. “I would love to get out of the restaurant industry, but it’s the most consistent work right now. I would take any job if it came with [health insurance].”
Recently, Phoebe has been witnessing something a lot of restaurants have been experiencing—a tremendous turnover rate. “We used to never have a problem with turnover, and most of us have been there three to four years, but, lately, it’s new people every week and people quitting every week,” she says. “We keep having people come in to train for a week. I guess everyone’s gotten used to not working as much, so having to do a lot of work seems not really worth it.”
So what are the reasons to leave the business? Some are afraid to go back into the tight space of a kitchen. Some have childcare issues. And some changed their careers altogether, using this time to pivot in a new direction or embrace something they had done only part-time before.
“They were always in the restaurant industry making a living, but they were always working toward another goal,” says Callaghan. “I think a lot of people jumped into other kinds of roles because they needed to make a living. Most of our staff were making a good living, but couldn’t just sit on the sidelines.”
Callaghan, who also pays a living wage, says that the struggle to find new people is partly caused by the lack of stability the restaurant has had recently. People don’t want to be concerned about whether their paycheck will clear, which is a big fear.
“Once restaurants really stabilize, people will move more energetically back to the business,” says Callaghan. “Because we’re paying a higher wage, I think it’s been simpler for us to be able to recruit people who want to work.”
The amount of “green” workers is also an issue, with restaurants forced to take in so many employees with little or no experience. Restaurants can’t flip a switch and go 100 mph in half of a second. Employees need to be trained, and that takes time.
“We’re all, as businesses, struggling with the growing pains of growing the business back to what it was before,” says Callaghan. “It’s the way I imagine a garden in spring. We had an industry that was in full flower—COVID was the wintertime for the industry and now everything is growing back. It’s a growing pain we all really dislike, but it’s very real.”
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