Sauce Magazine – Restaurants face staffing crisis as capacity restrictions lift in St. Louis

Restaurants face a staffing crisis as capacity constraints mount in St. Louis

Given that the city and county of St. Louis are at full capacity again and the public can rarely re-enter the dining scene, the question of whether there are enough staff to make everything possible is at the forefront of every restaurateur.

Scrolling through social media posts from restaurants in the area begging for applicants reveals how desperate restaurant owners are having to rebuild their staff and what extreme measures some are taking to do so. Some places raise wages or offer signing bonuses. A dozen restaurants in the Central West End, including Yellowbelly, Pi Pizzeria, Salt + Smoke, and Drunken Fish, even partnered for a neighborhood job fair held on Monday, May 3, to attract applicants.

“It is certainly unprecedented. I’ve never seen anything like it, ”said Louie DeMun owner Matt McGuire of the hiring situation. “It was all pretty upside down.”

“Even before the pandemic, it was difficult to find cooks,” said Kenny Snarzyk, co-owner of The Crow’s Nest. “I think it’s just hard to find people in general now.”

The virus has triggered a kind of perfect rent storm. Many restaurants were forced to lay off staff during the pandemic, were dormant or operated at a fraction of capacity, and relied on pivots such as roadside service to survive. Now everyone is ready to get back online at the same time and compete for a pool of workers that was limited before Covid and has become even smaller as a result of the pandemic for various reasons.

“I think there is a sizable class of people who have worked in restaurants and taken vacations and are not coming back,” said McGuire. Those workers left and some of them received stimulus money or increased unemployment benefits and took the time to think about what they wanted to do without the pressures of work, he said.

“It is probably the first time in many workers’ lives that they have had the opportunity to take a break and see what they wanted to do. This was a very unique opportunity for many diners, ”he said. “Once you’ve taken that break and have a more normal schedule, it’s difficult to go back.”

One benefit of the pandemic is that owners have been able to reassess their staffing needs and make changes to improve the quality of life for workers. Steve Smith, tavern keeper at The Royale, said he was currently open six shifts a week compared to the 14 weekly shifts he had before the pandemic, and had no plans to open again seven days a week, 360 days a year to be . He also pays more employees than ever before.

“I’m not seeing myself anytime soon regardless of whether the restrictions are lifted and I’m doing more than that,” he said. “When I have learned something, it is not a bad thing to take time out for yourself and the health of your company, as well as the health of the physical structure. I have to survive, but if I can survive without doing 14 shifts a week, it’s probably better for me and my staff and the quality of the work we do here. Going back to “normal” means losing the opportunity to do better. ”

Some restaurant workers took other jobs out of necessity, saw lives outside the restaurant industry, and found they had no desire to return. Tatyana Telnikova, owner of HandleBar, said one of her employees signed up as a driver for UPS. Snarzyk said one of his bartenders opted for a work-from-home information technology (IT) presence.

One of the keys to tackling the rental storm for many restaurants has been the ability to retain staff during the crisis. McGuire said Louie has been fortunate to stay open and sell take-out groceries throughout the pandemic, keeping all of its staff busy. It was financially difficult then, but now the sacrifice is paying off, he said.

“I was able to keep a large part of my team and a few employees that I could employ all year round,” said Telnikova. She said her problem now has enough work to do for the others who want to come back as HandleBar is currently only open four days a week. She said she was extremely grateful for her loyalty. “This year I felt more reassured than I have had in my entire career that my efforts to make my employees happy are paying off,” she said.

Little Fox co-owner Mowgli Rivard only reopens for dinner four days a week. She said many of her employees have returned and so far have been able to handle the reduced schedule.

“One thing that gives me hope that the hiring situation will change a bit is that we had some people who left the industry during that time and got nine or five jobs, and they realized how much they loved restaurants and came back, “she said.”[The kitchen] is definitely the thinnest stretched, but they make it work and do a great job. ”

Smith said he also kept a good chunk of his staff and even managed to contact some who left the industry years ago and convince them to get back in the saddle. However, finding new employees has been a problem, especially with chefs, he said.

Snarzyk said he could keep about 90 percent of his employees. He attributes this to the fact that creating a positive space has always been a priority for them. “Basically, we’re good to them,” he said.

The recruitment crisis is likely to delay some outdoor restaurants as the patio season is in full swing. Last year Little Fox added additional outdoor seating by pitching a tent on the property across the street. Rivard hopes to do the same later this month, but it depends on there being enough people to staff. Likewise, McGuire hopes to expand the terrace operations in Louie soon, but adding new employees will be key when that happens.

There is no doubt that in the future, restaurateurs will need to look carefully at how they will deal with the challenges of hiring and retaining employees and how they will pay for them.

“I think the entire restaurant business needs to be very innovative over the next year,” said Miguel Carretero, owner of Guidos Pizzeria and Tapas. “It’s definitely going to be a long, tough summer for all of us.” He said he increased the pay and while he has not yet offered any bonuses it is out of the question.

“I think this industry is going to see a significant increase in prices (for food and beverages) and people need to change their expectations of what they pay for,” said Smith.

McGuire said it is possible that increased costs could be offset by the potential surge in business as restrictions are lifted and the public is eating out again, but cautioned that customers’ tolerance of increased prices is limited. “Hopefully it will bring more legitimacy to work,” said McGuire of the wage increase. He also hopes that greater account will be taken of the pay differentials between employees in front of and behind the house. He said higher wages and bonuses would definitely hurt margins, and some of the old ideas about what percentage of gross sales should make up would change and hurt profitability. However, this will happen anyway with the prospect of an increased minimum wage on the horizon.

“I think we all need to invest in people again – because there are many jobs that can be done for higher wages,” said McGuire.

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