The restaurant industry was facing a tight labor market even before the pandemic, but the hiring challenges of 2019 pale in caparison to difficulties operators have been facing in 2021.
Restaurants have tried offering signing bonuses, raising wages, and taking pains to provide a fulfilling career path for their prospective recruits, but the challenge remains daunting as many former workers have either left the industry to pursue other careers or have been riding out the pandemic away from the workplace.
Restaurants have added back millions of jobs since the pandemic shut down dining rooms across the country last March, but staff shortfalls have remained widespread as the industry has reopened. Employment at full-service restaurants was down 11 percent, or 626,000 jobs, below pre-pandemic levels at the end of June, according to the National Restaurant Association. That compares with a 4 percent shortfall at quick-service and limited-service restaurants, which have tended to fare better during the pandemic. Other sectors have seen bigger declines, with employment 55 below pre-pandemic levels in the cafeteria/buffet segment, down 32 percent in the foodservice contractor segment, 30 percent in catering and mobile foodservice, and 24 percent in bars and taverns.
At the multi-unit Mermaid Inn in New York City, owner Danny Abrams said one of the challenges his restaurant group has faced is the fact that many former restaurant workers have left the city. The restaurant industry in New York has long tapped into the talent pool of people who work in the performing arts, which have been largely shut down for more than a year, leading many hopeful actors and others to leave town, he said.
“With Broadway opening back up, we think it will attract a new crop of people coming into the city,” said Abrams.
In the meantime, the company has struggled to find enough staff to reopen its six restaurants, he said. The company tried offering $250 signing bonuses, then upped the bounty to $1,000, and has still been unable to find enough help. It has reopened two of its locations, and is seeking to reopen a third, but the other three remain closed.
“We are at the mercy of the market right now,” said Abrams, who noted that one of the company’s locations, on the Upper West Side, has only partially reopened.
“If I had five more servers, I could probably open up another 50 seats, but we have been short-staffed all summer,” he said.
Mermaid Inn has had better luck finding back-of-the-house help, and has in fact retained many of its longtime kitchen workers. At Sirenetta, the company’s Italian restaurant, the kitchen remains closed, however, due to the challenges of recruiting a chef and kitchen staff that have the specialized cooking skills required for that concept, Abrams said.
Nashville Venue Offers Higher Wages
At The Twelve Thirty Club in Nashville, Tennessee, Nick Bill, director of operations, said the company has taken the position that it will pay higher wages — including up to $25 per hour for kitchen staff and a guaranteed $2,000 per week for the first eight weeks during training for lead servers — in an effort to attract and retain the best people it can find.
“We are looking to attract people by paying them what they are worth,” he said. “The easiest thing to do is spend money on fixtures and nice furniture and food and wine, but I think a lot time people lose sight of the most important variable, and that’s the people involved in the project.”
The multi-venue, 33,000-square-foot restaurant and nightclub is counting on having a staff that can provide a distinctive experience that will set it apart from competitors.
“It’s an investment we have to make beforehand, with the dividends to come later on,” said Bill.
The Twelve Thirty Club, which features live music and is scheduled to open its 400-seat main restaurant, Supper Club, in late September, is backed by performer Justin Timberlake, in partnership with veteran restaurateur Sam Fox.
Bill said the company has been aggressively recruiting and onboarding staff for Supper Club, training them in the venue’s other restaurant, First Level, to get them acclimated to the company’s culture.
The company is seeking to bring on talented workers even if they don’t meet the criteria for the positions it currently has available, he said.
“If we find good people that we don’t have a job budgeted for, we are creating jobs around those people,” said Bill. “I think it’s important to be creative and flexible and open-minded — when you find a good person, you get them onto your team.”
In Nashville, many of the longtime servers and bartenders left the industry to pursue other passions, he said. That has led The Twelve Thirty Club to hire a lot of hiring of inexperienced workers.
“We are hiring people without any experience,” said Bill. “If they are a great person and they are willing to learn, they can go as far as they want in the industry.”
Training Inexperienced Workers
Bryan Graham, culinary director and partner at Springfield, Massachusetts-based Bean Restaurant Group, said his company has had some success attracting inexperienced workers and developing them internally. It recently held a job fair seeking to fill some of the 150 positions it has across its multiple full-service restaurants, which include The Boathouse, IYA Sushi & Noodle Kitchen, Johnny’s Roadside, Wurst Haus, and other concepts.
“It was a small success in our eyes because we were able to add about six new team members,” said Graham, noting that most were high school students seeking part-time work.
“It’s been really nice to see this age group entering the restaurants,” he said. “They’ve been a huge success for us.”
Before the pandemic, Bean Restaurant Group already had a significant shortfall of applicants for back-of-house positions, Graham said. The company has been working with the chefs in each location to develop current staff who have little or no experience, “basically, promoting from within and investing time and patience into each team member,” Graham said.
Graham said the company operates busy restaurants and seeks to foster a positive environment as a workplace, but has not offered any other new incentives to attract workers. It has been able to retain many of its core employees, and has mostly been seeking to fill support positions, he said.
In addition to the job fair, Bean also posts open positions on job sites such as Indeed; on social media, including Facebook and Instagram; and relies on word of mouth from existing workers.
“We are trying to ride out the storm as far as state and federal benefits, in hopes we can fill more of these open rolls when they expire,” he said. “We are very optimistic. We feel the new applicant labor pool will come back.”