St. Louis Bars and Restaurants Face Staffing Crisis | Cafe | St. Louis | St. Louis News and Events

Abbey Tampow thought she was finally going to take a break.

For months, she and the rest of her skeleton crew worked non-stop on the Town & Country mainstay, the Country Club Bar and Grill, struggling to handle an increase in business while painfully understaffed. She had desperately tried to hire someone – anyone – to take the strain off her and her co-workers who worked sixty hours a week, and she thought she had finally found that person. The applicant seemed delighted with the opportunity and went through three different interviews before accepting an offer to come on board. Tampow had prepared the training for the newcomers, put them on the schedule, and was ready to welcome them to the team for lunch on a weekday a few weeks ago.

The woman never showed up.

“An extra hand would have been a relief for everyone,” says Tampow. “It could just be one person, but that’s critical when we’re working around the clock. It would have meant someone could go to a doctor’s appointment or run errands that they postponed because they couldn’t catch their breath. Us always go until that point in the year we are worried about hiring enough people and it always works, but that’s different. I’ve never seen anything like this where the lack of help has affected all of the staff just trying to get through all of them. “

The personnel problems described by Tampow do not only affect the country club. Throughout the food and beverage industry in St. Louis and beyond, restaurants and bars are struggling to find help. The inability to recruit is reaching the level of what many have termed a crisis, worrying an industry that has already seen more than its fair share of COVID-19-induced misery and affecting restaurants and bars. Ability to recover from the financial devastation of the past year. Without anyone serving an increasingly vaccinated audience wanting to eat out as usual, companies have been forced to turn away customers, cut hours and rethink the way they serve people.

“People who haven’t eaten out in the last year now come out expecting things to be the way they were, but this is a changed industry,” says Natasha Bahrami, owner of the Gin Room and Natasha’s Cafe. “People say it’s going to be the Roaring Twenties where everyone wants to come out and have fun, but they have to be patient because people just don’t come back.”

For Bahrami, who runs the South Grand Bar and Restaurant with her mother Hamishe and husband Michael Fricker, the inability to hire staff is something completely new. In the 36 years of its existence, Café Natasha’s has been proud of its familiar, low-turnover work environment and has sometimes retained its employees for decades. Now, however, she’s struggling to find people to work with as long-time employees leave the hospitality industry for industries that are believed to be more stable.

“Many have left the industry – and rightly so,” says Bahrami. “This business offers no health care, works you to the bone, and is moody. Why stick with it? This has challenged the entire stability of the industry.”

Bahrami’s attitude towards the systemic problems in the food and beverage business mirrors that of other restaurateurs, chefs and hotel professionals who consider this phenomenon to be a long time. In the United States, the restaurant industry has been plagued by a number of problems for decades that have deterred everyone but the true believer from making a career out of hospitality. Low wages, long working hours on weekends and holidays, a culture that runs counter to work-life balance, a lack of health care or paid leisure time were the hallmarks of restaurant life. As with many things, the pandemic did not cause these problems; it revealed the weaknesses.

Although there has been a push towards a more professional industry with a better work-life balance in recent years, the change has not been extensive enough. Nowhere is this more evident than in the back of the house. With servers and bartenders hard to come by right now, finding kitchen help is next to impossible. As Steven Fitzpatrick-Smith, owner of the Royale and Tick Tock tavern, explains, the current crisis sheds light on the wage gap between those at the front who tip and those at the back of the house who only get an hourly wage to earn.


  • The industry needs correction when it comes to paying for differences between the front and back of the house.

“Obviously the back of the house needs better compensation,” says Fitzpatrick-Smith. “That was the dirty little secret of the business and has blown me on so many levels over the years. I’ve done my best to address it and I’ve done research, but there’s no easy solution. Whether it’s a tip or not. Share.” “Better compensation, a real minimum wage or a better benefit package, we should compensate our employees as much as possible. I assume that restaurant prices will rise because we are long overdue for them.”

However, even generous compensation packages still do not attract any help. At the Pat Connolly Tavern, owner Joe Jovanovich is so desperate to find chefs that he is offering a $ 500 hire bonus for those who stay on the team for 90 days. He admits it is difficult to swallow a pill. Given the financial troubles caused by his restaurant’s lost revenue last year, he is struggling to increase the compensation, despite philosophically believing that this is the right thing to do. However, it cannot reopen – and make money again in return – unless it has the staff to do it. It’s a difficult cycle that he believes will usher in a much-needed change in the industry.

“The fact is that kitchen workers have been shockingly underpaid for a long time,” says Jovanovich. “It’s systemic and I don’t think it’s bad when wage expectations shift. It’s fair and long overdue, but we have to make ends meet. I don’t know if that is by and large.” means tax incentives for employers who pay a living wage or what. Customers need to understand that when we need to ask for more – but that makes going out to eat less inclusive and accessible to people. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but this will definitely make some people rethink their business model when they think of the long-term, bigger picture. “

Cary McDowell, head chef at Pi, Gringo and PiRico, came to a similar conclusion.

“It’s sure to be a reckoning,” he says.

For McDowell, a longtime industry veteran, the current personnel crisis is unlike anything he’s seen in his decades in business – and it’s utterly terrifying. As a chef at a time when a job was viewed more as an apprenticeship position, the industry has changed tremendously, even if the term pricing and compensation has not done so. While he understands that no one wants to see prices rise, he believes that people need to be prepared for the cost of their meals in order to more accurately reflect the inputs that go into their food, although he believes even that answer does complex web of problems that mean this, oversimplified, have got us where we are today.

If industry professionals have one thing in common – aside from their common problems with staff shortages – they are not repeating the narrative that the root cause of the current staffing crisis has to do with the additional unemployment benefits available to workers as a result of federal COVID . 19 economic aid packages. In its prime, unemployed workers received additional unemployment benefits of $ 600 per week. This has since been reduced to $ 300. While some recognize the incentive of increased unemployment benefits – and hope that the crisis will subside when that extra money is gone – most owners and managers do not blame the labor shortage at the bottom of federal politics. Instead, they point to broader work-life balance issues, health and safety concerns, and the desire for stability that have drawn potential employees to different areas of work.

While the explanations for labor shortages may be numerous and complex, the reason they are unable to operate at full capacity is simple: there is no one working. As many owners and managers complain, there is a public perception that the reason they are only open at certain times, shut down lunch service, or turn down tables has to do with safety concerns – that they are not ready to close again jump operations because of the threat of COVID-19. While the virus is still in the foreground, they are keen to get back into business as safely as possible. However, they are not ready to sacrifice the quality of their food and service. In the meantime, they ask for patience, kindness, and empathy as you work hard to do what they all want to do: serve people.

“Just being patient and kind is everything at the moment,” says Bahrami. “If people want this industry to survive, it’s best to support your favorite restaurant in a friendly way. Just be patient and know we’re doing our best – and appreciate what’s here now, or it may not be here. ” no more.”

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