A month ago, restaurant owner Kathleen Barnes advertised on Facebook that she was hiring workers for the reopening of 6th and Vine Restaurant and Wine Bar in downtown Winston-Salem.
Her post got 200 likes and plenty of shares — but only one applicant.
Chef David Swing of Young Cardinal said that he and owner Adam Andrews are currently trying to hire about 12 employees for Young Cardinal and Andrews’ other businesses — Jeffrey Adams and Dogwood Hops and Crops. “And we’ve had zero applicants,” Swing said. “I don’t get it. But it’s not just us.”
With vaccinations on the rise, people are anxiously looking forward to getting back to some kind of normal this spring — and that includes dining in restaurants.
Many local restaurants are reporting increases in business. But most are still woefully understaffed to handle any kind of volume akin to pre-COVID-19 levels.
Lots of restaurants are hiring. But few workers are applying.
And the same scenario is being played out across the country. The National Restaurant Association recently reported that restaurant employment has gone up every month of this year. But, as of February, restaurant employment was still down 20 percent — or 1.1 million jobs — compared to February 2020, just before the pandemic hit.
And national restaurant sales are starting to rebound. The U.S. Census Bureau said that March sales for eating and drinking establishments was $62.2 billion nationwide, up an impressive 13.4% from February 2021 and down a mere 5% from pre-COVID February 2020 sales of $65.3 billion.
Triad restaurateurs are simultaneously thrilled that customers are coming back and concerned that they can’t handle the business because they don’t have enough help.
“Business is picking up. More people are coming as vaccines go out. People are tired of being cooped up,” said Chris Martin, a co-owner of Hops Burger Bar, which has locations in Winston-Salem and Greensboro. “Our kitchen staff got so low that we had to close Mondays and Tuesdays. This week or next week we’re hoping to get back to normal hours, but the staff we have is working overtime.”
Like many others, Martin is trying to hire more workers — people driving past Hops on Reynolda Road in Winston-Salem can’t miss the big sign announcing that fact — but Hops is not getting many applicants.
The $64,000 question is where are these missing 1.1 million workers that used to cook, bartend and wait tables?
No one knows for certain, but the answer appears to involve a handful of factors, according to Triad restaurant owners, managers and chefs.
One theory is that is thousands of career restaurant workers found other employment last year when restaurants were closed or operating with skeletal staffs — and decided they would stay where they are.
“I think there are a percentage of people who have left the industry,” Swing said. “There is a lot of money to be made right now, but nobody is applying.”
Nick Wilson, a co-owner of 1618 West in Greensboro, said he has brought back most of his full-timers, but that filling part-time jobs hasn’t been easy.
“Especially with part-time staff, I think a lot of them just couldn’t or didn’t want to wait (for restaurants to rehire people),” Wilson said. “There are a lot of other opportunities now in a lot of other industries.”
Some people think that the exceptionally high unemployment benefits — with the federal government adding a $300 a week supplement to what states offer — is making people stay at home rather than return to work. Most restaurateurs think that accounts for only a small part of the labor shortage.
“I think the problem is bigger than that,” said Niki Farrington, the chef at Willow’s Bistro in Winston-Salem. “Some people are staying home. Some people have found jobs in other fields. Maybe this is a time when we need to look at our restaurants, our kitchens — and think about how we can make the experience more rewarding.”
Farrington noted that some grocery stores are paying up to $18 for inexperienced deli clerks. “Most places can’t afford to pay that to line cooks unless they are really experienced. And even then, we can’t touch them on benefits.”
Pay and benefits have been sticky issues at restaurants for years. And the pandemic has highlighted the problem.
So one possible answer to the labor shortage is fewer people want to work in restaurants because they can get equal or better pay plus benefits elsewhere. Many workers aren’t sympathetic to restaurateurs’ staffing issues, saying it’s high time the industry consider benefits and better pay.
But pay and benefits don’t tell the whole story, either. Wilson said, “We offer health insurance, dental, vision. We’re making sure everyone is making a living wage.” Yet applicants are still scarce. “That’s why we’re kind of scratching our heads right now,” he said.
Barnes, who closed 6th and Vine for the winter to regroup, said she made a point of giving her kitchen staff raises during the pandemic — even while she was losing revenue — but that workers have other concerns, too. “This is a stressful job. It’s hard to describe how stressful it is,” she said. Despite the raises, she still lost a key kitchen staffer who felt burnt out.
Barnes said she reduced restaurant hours, closing Mondays and Tuesdays, not only because she was short-staffed but also because she knew her employees needed time to recover from the stress.
Restaurant work has always been stressful. “Restaurant work is athletic. It’s very physical,” said Dennis Quaintance, the CEO of Quaintance-Weaver Restaurant & Hotels. “And you’re also doing a lot of things at once.” The employee-owned company runs Proximity Hotel, the O. Henry Hotel, Green Valley Grill, Print Works Bistro and Lucky 32 Kitchen in Greensboro, as well as another Lucky 32 in Cary.
Quaintance said that his restaurants and hotels now employ about 400 people compared to more than 650 before the pandemic. In seeking new hires, he said, the company has had to get creative. “We’ve found that people in performance — like music, dance, theatre — tend to do well in our business – and those happen to be fields where venues have been shut down,” he said. “So we’re spending more effort trying to attract people who have worked in performance arts.”
Still, the stress level of restaurant work has only gone up during the pandemic — not only with sanitizing the restaurant but also with dealing with customers. “I think a lot of people just are worried about having a frontline job,” Quaintance said.
Restaurant workers don’t like the fact that the pandemic “has turned us into police,” Wilson said. COVID-related issues may lessen as more people get vaccinated, but right now working in a restaurant — or any business where people have to remove masks as part of doing business — can be risky and stressful — and that may influence people’s decision to find jobs elsewhere.
One final factor that may come into play in this labor shortage is fun. “The public is amazing but also challenging at times — when you throw in everyone’s conflicting opinions about COVID and masks and all that,” Wilson said. “We understand the environment we’re in, but it definitely takes the fun out.”
Restaurant work has always had its downsides. You work nights and weekends. You’re constantly on your feet and frequently straining your back. You probably don’t get health insurance, let alone retirement benefits. And you have to deal with the public — where it takes just one rotten apple to spoil the bunch.
But the work also had its upsides. Every restaurant worker can tell you about the adrenaline rush of working in a restaurant that’s humming along. People mostly come to restaurants for fun, for pleasure, to relax, to enjoy good food and good company. And that fun rubs off on workers. It’s a bonus to work around people who are relaxed and socializing. Serving food to people is a great form of instant gratification.
But when you are worried about someone giving you a disease, well, it can be hard to relax. When you are worried about an ugly confrontation with a customer who won’t wear a mask, it can be hard to enjoy your job.
“I had a server come back for one week and then quit,” Barnes said. “They said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. The customers were just so demanding.’”
To an extent, the staff shortage is kind of a vicious cycle. An overworked, understaffed restaurant means longer waits and more mistakes.
Swing said that Young Cardinal is doing good business — but customers are sometimes waiting two hours on weekends because he doesn’t have enough help.
Barnes said that 6th and Vine is “bustling” but it has only enough staff to operate the indoor dining room or the patio — not both at the same time.
Nick Wilson at 1618 West said, “If the governor lifted the restrictions on capacity right now, we wouldn’t be able to go to 100 percent. We don’t have enough (workers).”
Restaurateurs said they don’t see a quick resolution to the problem. “Maybe people will come back once this is all over. I don’t know,” Quaintance said. “Right now, it’s like living on Mars. But it might be a good time to go into the restaurant business, because when you show up, the rest of the staff is going to be really happy to see you. You’ll be appreciated.”