Restaurants Spent Summer Grappling With Labor Shortage

When Crook’s Corner announced its sudden, unexpected closing in mid-June, co-owner Shannon Healy fielded condolence calls from restaurateurs for miles around. At some point in every conversation, the caller would say, “If any of your people need a job …”

But Healy, who also owns Alley Twenty Six bar and restaurant in Durham, could offer every one of the Crook’s staff a position at his other place.

“Anyone who wants to stay in this business will have no trouble finding a job,” Healy said. The problem is that so many of his experienced staff left the hospitality industry during the pandemic and have no interest in returning.

The pandemic has provided a discouraging overlay for workers already faced with traditionally low wages, long hours, uncertain schedules, physically and emotionally demanding work, sometimes done close together in tight spaces. Compounding the shrinking worker pool is skyrocketing demand. Once the governor lifted restrictions as the summer season was beginning so that restaurants and bars could operate at full capacity, it created a scenario as if every establishment in the state held its grand opening in the same week.

Mask requirements were being dropped, even though the vaccination rate is below the 70 percent goal. (Some establishments have begun re-instituting them in the face of the spreading delta variant, even before recent local jurisdictions renewed requirements.) “Workers need to feel safe going to work,” Paige Ouiment, finance professor at Kenan-Flagler Business School, said as a panelist in an online discussion hosted by the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise in May. “Parents must feel safe sending their kids back to school.” Not being able to find childcare will limit labor force participation rates, she said.

Ouiment said in an interview that with more demand for labor than supply of workers, people can be more choosy about where they work.

“Effectively, bargaining power has shifted more toward the worker,” she said. “Workers, on average, will favor the jobs with higher wages or other more desirable attributes like good hours, benefits, pleasant workplace.”

Weighing perks in tight market

Unemployment in North Carolina was at 4.4 percent in July, the latest month for which state statistics were available. Among the state’s metro areas in June, the latest month for local statistics, the Durham-Chapel Hill rate was the lowest at 4.1 percent, and Orange County’s 3.7 percent was lowest among counties.

Offering more money or other perks hasn’t increased the number of employment applications, local business owners say. Andrew Young, owner of the Blue’s on Franklin barbecue joint that opened last fall, knows of a restaurant owner in Dare County who offered beachfront lodgings to his kitchen staff, but still had no takers. He said he’s heard of commercial farms and pork processing plants offering $5,000 signing bonuses, and Sheetz convenience stores and gas stations was hiring unskilled workers at $22 to $26 an hour.

“I can’t afford to pay a dishwasher $22 an hour,” Young said. “Corporate chains can pay people that in the short term, but mom-and-pop places, we can’t afford that.”

Not when suppliers’ price for chicken wings has gone up 300 percent.

“Blue-collar labor has dried up,” Young said. He has tapped teenagers in his family and among his friends to wash, wipe, clean and mop.

“Everyone who works here, I’ve coached in football when they were 8 years old,” he said, only half joking. He’s had to cut from his menu items that are complicated to make because sometimes it’s just him and his son staffing a kitchen that typically has six or seven workers.

Coronato Pizza in Carrboro stayed open for takeout throughout the pandemic. Owner Teddy Diggs didn’t lay off any employees, but some opted for the expanded benefits of unemployment.

To be fully staffed, Diggs needs 14 people on his payroll, as he had pre-pandemic, but was working with about half that many. Lack of applicants is his biggest challenge. “We have increased our pay rates and our offers dramatically,” he said, “but that has not changed anything for us.”

Diggs had pared his hours of operation, and he hasn’t reopened his dining room yet. He won’t, until he has sufficient staff to maintain quality of service. He recently closed on Sundays so as not to burn out the staff he has.

Omar Castro, co-owner of Breadman’s, couldn’t take time to comment during a busy Saturday brunch shift at the diner. Short-staffed, he was waiting tables.

“A skill that is tough to find”

Dame’s Chicken and Waffles has been trying to open a branch in Chapel Hill since it first secured space on Franklin Street, the former [B]Ski’s] spot, in 2019. Finally, in May, the upfit, permits and COVID restrictions were done, but the diner hasn’t been able to open for as many hours as it would like because it can’t find enough staff. Initially, it limited service to weekdays, lunch only, until it could hire more cooks and cashiers. By mid-June, it had extended its hours to Saturday and served dinner four nights a week.

Bret Oliverio, who runs Sup Dogs, made a commitment to pay in full everyone willing to remain on staff, even while the grill was closed. And still, by the time COVID restrictions had been lifted, he had to raise his pay rate significantly to attract and retain workers.

“I thought [the biggest challenge] would be getting people to come through the door and feel comfortable dining inside,” Oliverio said. “But I was wrong. We had our best April and May since opening in 2014.”

Sup Dogs is continually hiring and training new staff, he said.

“Cooking in a high-volume restaurant kitchen is a skill that is tough to find right now.”

Young, of Blues on Franklin, agrees.

“Getting people in the kitchen was brutal,” he said. “We’re all aware of the toll COVID took. People have rational reasons to be scared to work in close quarters.”

Kyle Shea, general manager of the oldest coffee shop in town, Carolina Coffee Shop, underscored that consistency is crucial in food preparation. He has a core staff who’ve worked in the coffee shop’s kitchen for as long as 20 years. He has had less trouble finding wait staff, in part because he relies on students — lots of them, 10 times as many as the full-time kitchen staff — to cover the exclusively daytime shifts.

“We hire in bulk,” he said. Because the century-old coffee shop is so tightly connected to UNC, working there is part of the Carolina experience. He sometimes hires students as freshmen and they stay through graduation. And he does have to plan ahead. A month before Commencement, he realized 10 members of his wait staff were graduating.

“I realized we would not have a single person working Commencement weekend,” he said. He sorted through the applications — not a day goes by that he doesn’t receive at least one — and found some students who would be staying in town through the summer. He hired them, trained them and set them loose on the floor during that busy weekend. They weren’t polished, he said, but customers were forgiving.

The pent-up demand from customers who’ve spent the past 15 months shut out of their favorite dining spots has somewhat made up for the usually slow summer months when the students are gone. Young, of Blues on Franklin, is buoyed by the enthusiasm from customers.

“Customers are coming out in droves,” he said. “It’s been a joy to see people out and with a little dance in their step.”

Nancy E. Oates

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