HISTORIC TRIANGLE — Cancelled dine-in services, tired and overworked servers, and ‘Help Wanted’ signs are in nearly every restaurant window. This is the new unfortunate normal for the restaurant industry.
At the start of the pandemic a year ago, businesses, especially those in the restaurant and hospitality industries, found themselves having to layoff or furlough workers in order to stay afloat. Now, those same businesses are facing the opposite problem.
As COVID-19 restrictions ease with greater vaccine availability, social gatherings for larger parties on the verge of becoming permitted again, restaurants are starting to see a return in volume of customers, but many of their kitchens are still sparse.
“Spring break was definitely the busiest most of our restaurants have been all year,” Debi Schaefer, director of Williamsburg Area Restaurants Association (WARA) said. “But they are just so understaffed. They’re swamped.”
According to Schaefer, many WARA members reduced their staff 30-40 percent in order to keep the doors open during the pandemic.
Anna Glider, general manager at Grunow’s Kitchen, said that the restaurant is currently looking for front and back of the house staff, as well as servers and a hostess. In fact, Grunow’s Kitchen has been looking to hire for these positions over the past three months.
Then, Grunow’s Kitchen announced on Facebook on April 24, “Beginning April 27th until we retain front of the house staff, we are making the difficult decision to close our dine in option. We will be serving TO GO only until we get servers in the door.”
Gilder, a business consultant by trade, said, “I have never seen anything like this before, truly.”
So the question remains: How are so many places struggling to find the staff?
Many restaurant owners blame the new stimulus checks.
Back in December 2020, former president Donald Trump signed a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package, which included a temporary $300/week supplemental unemployment benefit as well as a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans.
“Our last server abruptly left and never showed up to work,” Gilder said. She added that another server told her that they weren’t coming back to work because they were getting another stimulus check. “I think it’s because of how easy it is to get unemployment now.”
Schaefer agreed, saying in an email to WYDaily, “It has been increasingly difficult over the past 5-6 years to be able to staff the hospitality industry. COVID[-19] just made it harder with the benefits being offered to stay out of the workforce.”
Since the weather has warmed up, Helseth has seen his outdoor seating packed but his indoor seating still below 50 percent capacity because of COVID-19 restrictions. Carrot Tree Kitchens has been busy, although busy may be an understatement.
“We weren’t quite prepared for the rush of business. We had months of struggling to get any kind of business and when the business finally came, it came fast and it came hard,” Helseth said, crediting the vaccine rollout for the increase in business.
So, people are going out to dine, but they aren’t filling out job applications. Helseth said he is currently hiring 10 to 14 full-time positions across his three locations.
Due to the lack of staff, there are many services Carrot Tree Kitchens hasn’t been able to provide, including specialty cakes or even expand their hours and days of operations.
“One of the painful things to me is the word, ‘No.’ I had a woman call me and ask if I could have a specialty cake [for her]. I had to tell her, ‘No, I can’t make that cake for you this week.’ That killed me,” Helseth said.
He then took his frustration to Facebook, posting about the number of services and operational changes he wanted to provide but couldn’t because his restaurants are understaffed. “Can’t convince them to give up the easy unemployment money,” Helseth wrote, referencing potential hires.
The post has received over 700 reactions and 1,000 comments, some supporting Helseth’s position while others pointed out the issue of child care costs and health risks due to the pandemic. The comments were passionate and fierce on both sides.
“I really stuck my foot in my mouth,” Helseth said. “As for saying everyone would rather stay at home and collect unemployment, of course I know that is not the case. I have many staff who are single parents and I accommodated them so they could help their kids with at-home learning. I recognize there are people out there with disabilities and who are immunocompromised.”
Helseth said that he went through as many comments as he could, looking for suggestions. In an attempt to find qualified staff, he said he reached out to places like the Center for Autism and Related Disorders to see if they knew of anyone looking for work.
He also changed his hiring process, shortening the interview times and providing quicker feedback to potential hires. “Many apply, but few are actually qualified,” Helseth said. “We’re a scratch bakery. I’m desperate for help but I can’t just hire anybody. They need to know what they’re doing in a kitchen.”
As for the wellbeing of his current staff, they are overworked but appreciated, Helseth said. Hourly pay at Carrot Tree Kitchens is anywhere from five to six dollars an hour. If an employee doesn’t make at least minimum wage with tips included, Helseth said he pays the difference out of pocket. While he can’t afford to offer benefits, he said that he offers paid vacation time and connects employees to insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act.
For WARA-member restaurants, they are also connected to resources for employee insurance and other forms of help, but it’s still not enough, Schaefer pointed out.
Gilder added that small businesses cannot compete with corporate restaurants and cannot offer the same level of benefits as they do.
So what are local restaurants to do except either wait for things to get better or hope help comes their way.
“People are out of work for so many reasons,” Helseth said, adding that he is ready to try any new idea a person may offer. “If there is a box I have yet to think outside of, then please let me know because I am eager to do so.”
Grunow’s Kitchen, which offers dishes free of gluten and nuts, is located at 4336 George Washington Memorial Hwy. Their hours are Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and
Friday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. To view their menu, click here. You can reach the restaurant at 757-988-0900.
Carrot Tree Kitchens has two locations, one at 1303 Jamestown Rd Suite 135, and their second location at 323 Water St. Toby’s Dog House is still temporarily closed, but they are located at 1782 Jamestown Rd. To inquire about hiring, call 757-229-0957 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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