As Diners Return, Restaurants Face a New Hurdle: Finding Workers

MIAMI — All Day, a downtown coffee shop and restaurant, started the year on a high note. January was its busiest month since the start of the pandemic. “It was like turning on a light switch,” said Camila Ramos, an owner.

Business was so good, it pushed All Day’s staff to a near-breaking point, Ms. Ramos said. When she had trouble hiring reinforcements to help with the increased traffic, she was forced to make a counterintuitive decision: She closed All Day for the month of February.

“I couldn’t find people to hire,” she said last weekend outside her cafe, which reopened on March 1. “I just wanted some time to reset the operations.”

Ms. Ramos discovered early what the owners of full-service restaurants nationwide are now experiencing: a persistent worker shortage in the face of an upswing in business, as mild weather for outdoor dining spreads across the country, along with the reduced Covid restrictions that came early to South Florida and are now being felt throughout the U.S.

“I don’t think anything like this has ever happened,” said Katie Button, the chef and a co-owner of two restaurants in Asheville, N.C. “Everybody in the world is hiring at the same time.”

A staffing shortage seems counterintuitive in a business that has been devastated by the pandemic, with mass layoffs and an alarming number of permanent closings. It comes just as the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion grant program for struggling small restaurants, bars and restaurant groups, is gearing up to take applications, and as diners who have eaten at home for a year feel increasingly liberated by vaccines.

Restaurant employment has risen each month this year, according to the National Restaurant Association, but staffing levels at full-service restaurants in February were still 20 percent — or 1.1 million jobs — lower than a year ago. (Employment at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants was down just 6 percent over the same period.)

Owners and chefs at full-service restaurants say the main reason staffing remains stubbornly low is that there are simply many more job openings than available workers.

Hugh Acheson, a chef with restaurants in Atlanta and Athens, Ga., is in charge of food and beverage at the new Hotel Effie Sandestin, in Miramar Beach, Fla. Around the time it opened in February, he said, one online job site advertised more than 300 line cook openings in the same area. “And those listings had been up for, like, two months,” he said.

The worker pinch is even inspiring social media memes. The chef Jeremy Fox recently advertised job openings at his three restaurants in Santa Monica, Calif., on Instagram. The ad includes a photo of a Mr. Fox in an empty restaurant, beneath the headline: “When you’re hiring cooks, but so is every restaurant.”

Madison McLaren, All Day’s new executive chef, joked that she considered posting on the dating site Tinder: “Responsible cook, seeking same.”

But intense competition for workers is only one reason for the worker shortage.

Restaurateurs say many former employees are choosing not to re-enter the work force at a time when they can make nearly as much or more by collecting unemployment benefits.

“You have some cases where it’s more profitable to not work than to work, and you can’t really fault people for wanting to hold on to that as long as possible,” Mr. Fox said.

Others have left the restaurant business for better-paying jobs in other fields, further shrinking the pool of possible applicants. Greg Wright, 34, said he decided not to return to his job as a sous-chef at Marlow & Sons, in Brooklyn, soon after the shutdown last March. He has since moved to the Bay Area and started training to become a computer programmer.

“To me, it was, ‘Do I just sit here on my hands and hope that I have a job in the next two years, three years, five years?’” Mr. Wright said. “The answer was, ‘Absolutely not.’”

Liz Murray, director of human resources and communications for the company that owns Marlow & Sons, said employees have left the company for a variety of reasons. Some moved from New York to their hometowns — and stayed, after finding jobs in restaurants there.

A spokeswoman for Crafted Hospitality, the company that operates the chef Tom Colicchio’s restaurants, said that 80 to 85 percent of the group’s kitchen employees have moved out of New York City.

Sean Xie is the chief financial officer and managing partner of a company that operates 13 locations of the Sichuan restaurants Chengdu Taste and Mian, in California, Nevada, Washington, Texas and Hawaii. In most of those states, he said, government support and competition from companies like Amazon make it “very difficult for us to compete” for talent without raising salaries and wages to levels that his businesses can’t support.

“We might even close a store or two, just because we don’t have staff,” Mr. Xie said. “We want to stay open, and even expand.”

Erick Williams, the executive chef and owner of Virtue, a Southern restaurant in Chicago, said his staff of 22 employees is about half the size it was before the pandemic. “People aren’t even showing up for interviews these days,” he said.

If he can’t hire more help before business increases with the growth of outdoor dining, Mr. Williams said, “all of a sudden, you got to pay more overtime, and you’re running the risk of burning out your staff.”

The tight job market has helped hasten changes that restaurant workers pushed for during the shutdowns, including higher pay and better working conditions. Ms. Button has raised wages in accordance with recommendations made by One Fair Wage, an advocacy group for service workers, and is paying $150 bonuses to employees who refer new hires who stay on the job for more than 90 days.

The starting wage for kitchen employees at Mr. Acheson’s Atlanta restaurants is $14 to $15 per hour, he said, up from $12 before the pandemic. “People will walk down the street for a buck more — and they should,” he said.

Mike Traud, the program director of the Department of Food and Hospitality Management at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, said intense competition for talent makes this an opportune time for people to break into the restaurant business. He said this is particularly true in the Northeast, where restaurants on the coast are hiring for the tourism season.

“You have more leverage,” he said, “and there are more opportunities to get into upper-level kitchens.”

Many people, though, may be reluctant to take up or return to restaurant work, given the health risks that some studies have linked to serving customers, particularly indoors. Many restaurateurs are also concerned that resuming indoor dining too quickly could cause another spike in Covid infections. (This week, the Aspen Institute’s Food and Society Program released a set of safety guidelines it developed, in partnership with other industry groups, for diners and restaurant employees to continue following.)

Some restaurants, like All Day, in Miami, are still serving only outdoors, even as indoor dining restrictions loosen, because of worries about unvaccinated staff and customers — and because opening more tables only puts more stress on already overstretched staffs.

In Miami, the struggle to find restaurant workers isn’t likely to end soon. Restaurant operators from New York, like Major Food Group, are rushing to open locations in South Florida, where the population is booming.

Macchialina, a popular Italian restaurant in Miami Beach, had to close for a day in January because of staffing shortages. The chef Niven Patel is part owner of two restaurants in Coral Gables, and is opening another this summer. “Finding staff is pretty much the No. 1 priority every week in our meetings,” he said.

Ms. Ramos said she is happy that market forces pushed her to make changes she had wanted to make to create a better workplace at her All Day cafe. “Before it was like, we need to pay what we can afford,” she said. “Now it’s like, we need to charge what’s necessary.”

Yet even with higher salaries, Ms. Ramos, 32, has begun looking for potential job applicants among her customers. One new hire is a former real estate agent. Another was a day trader.

“I normally require three years’ experience, minimum, like zero exceptions,” Ms. Ramos said. “Now I’m like, ‘You’ve been here a couple times? I’ll train you.’”

Tejal Rao and Rachel Wharton contributed reporting.

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