Yet another restaurant crisis: finding help. What that means for your dining experience
Christopher Bates owns several restaurants in the Finger Lakes wine region, including FLX Wienery in Lakemont and FLX Table in Geneva. But lately you can find Bates, a master sommelier, working as a line cook at The Quincy Exchange, his new restaurant in Corning's historic Gaffer District. Co-owner Isabel Bogadtke, his wife, is working front of house.
They were ready to open the Maillard Club, a high-end steakhouse in the same building, in December. It is on hold until May. Plans to open six more restaurants have come to a standstill.
"As a business, we’re literally paralyzed," Bates said.
All of this is because they can't find enough staff.
Restaurant owners across New York state say an unheard-of labor shortage has stymied their ability to dig themselves out of the financial shortfalls that have come as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
And it comes at a time when warmer weather and the freedom that comes with vaccines are making diners, cooped up all winter, more eager than ever to go out to eat. When they do, these diners will likely see the effects of the workforce shortage, including adapted menus, hard-to-find reservations, higher prices and, in the end, fewer restaurants.
Many openings, few applicants
According to New York labor statistics, jobs at food service and drinking establishments declined 33.5% from February 2020 to February 2021, from 655,600 jobs to 436,100. That would seem to indicate a large number of out-of-work restaurant workers.
On the website Indeed, nationwide postings for restaurant jobs March 19 were 2.8% higher than they were Feb. 1, 2020 — a growth that's remarkable when thousands of restaurants have closed and many aren't operating at full capacity.
Kelly Bush owns Union Tavern in Irondequoit as well as the Marshall Street Bar and Grill in downtown Rochester. She is on the board of the New York Restaurant Association, and takes part in calls with restaurant owners from around the state. The labor shortage is a hot topic. "It comes up every single call," she said.
Amorette Miller and her husband talk to employers frequently as owners of shiftdiff.com, a job search engine in Rochester and the Finger Lakes (she also writes freelance articles for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle). "What we know for sure is that nonprofit and the restaurant industries are finding it the hardest to source employees," she said.
It used to be that when she saw a "help wanted" sign at a restaurant, she'd introduce herself to the owner and offer her services. Now, she pays her bill and leaves. "That’s sad, I guess," she said. "I think it’s something that’s going to come back on its own.”
Unemployment a major factor
Most restaurant owners point to unemployment benefits as the first reason for the labor shortage.
"I think people have been home for so long and collecting unemployment, they don’t want to come back. They’re also scared. They’re in their comfort zone," Arici said.
People may collect unemployment for 79 to 99 weeks, depending on their jobs. And until Sept. 5, many are entitled to an additional $300 weekly through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation — which means that low-wage workers receive almost the same amount collecting unemployment as they do working full time.
A 2016 report by nonprofit workers’ rights organization Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that more than 200,000 parents worked in the restaurant industry in New York State; of those, 92,000 were mothers and 45,000 were single mothers. With many school districts operating remotely or with hybrid models, those parents are in a bind for child care. And children attending in-person school would have to be out of school if they contracted or were exposed to COVID-19. Parents would need to take time off to care for them, and those kinds of absences are not practical in the restaurant industry.
"So much of our labor market relies on the school system," Miller noted. "In-person school is an integral part of the economy." She noted that women also tend to be caregivers for elderly family members and for people sick with COVID.
Restaurant owners say that employees who return to work often seek part-time hours to take advantage of a new Partial Unemployment Insurance offered by New York state. Workers who work fewer than 30 hours can collect 25% of their weekly benefit, as well as the $300 from the federal government, as long as they earn no more than $504 in gross pay — so they make more working part time than they would full time. The owners often accommodate these requests, but say it complicates scheduling.
Consequences of fewer staff
Jon Swan and his family own six restaurants in the city of Rochester. He scheduled 12 interviews during a week in March, and just two people showed up. "I've never had this kind of scenario before," he said. As a result, he has limited the restaurants' hours; the Latin-inspired Ox and Stone is open three days a week, and Dorado, a Mexican cantina, is open only for dinner.
Swan has been filling in on dishwashing and serving shifts. He's happy to do it — it's part of the job — but it has meant he hasn't had time to update websites, work on menus or devote more time to hiring. "In that way, it really hurts business," he said.
Candee said the labor shortage forced him to make modifications at Dinh Dinh Kitchen. He added a 40-gallon steam kettle to make soup with fewer staff. He reduced his menu, closed an extra day a week and will likely delay opening the restaurant for lunch.
“A lot of this has to do with personnel,” he said. “I don’t want to burn out the staff I do have.” Dating back to when he was planning the restaurant, he sought out a small location. “I anticipated instability,” he said. “But I didn’t see this.”
In Rochester, Margherita Smith runs a popular takeout restaurant called Saucey Chef. Each day she posts a different menu on Instagram.
Her menu includes fewer decadent pasta dishes that require individual sauté pans, and more spring rolls, burgers and loaded fries. That's because she is short two dishwashers. "The menu is purely out of our need to not use a dishwasher," she said. "We'll figure it out or adapt what we serve until we have all the hands we need.”
She is considering offering signing bonuses to new employees, and incentivizing her staff for recommendations. She also plans to reach out to cooks who have started underground food businesses from their homes; she respects their hustle and plans to offer to help them take their operations to the next level.
Early in the pandemic, Azanedo couldn’t get any of his staff to return to the Peruvian restaurant Maura’s Kitchen in Nyack. He hired a man who had been a DJ at events and taught him how to make cocktails to go. Eventually, he did “everything,” said Azanedo. Now he’s a fully trained server and a bartender.
People leave the industry
Talk to a restaurant worker, and chances are that person can tell you about the sommelier selling real estate, the manager who took a government job or the server teaching Zumba. It's unclear whether workers are exiting at a higher rate than in the past, but the pandemic has caused many to rethink their careers.
Among them is Alan Novy, 31, of Farmington, Ontario County, who over the years rose in the ranks from dishwasher to cook to manager. Most recently, he worked at City Tavern, a spacious sports bar in Victor, Ontario County.
“It was a slice of heaven there," he said. He enjoyed his coworkers, the camaraderie and the banter. He appreciated that he was given the leeway to back up his employees in situations such as when men were fresh to female servers. His plans were to work his way up to general manager.
But when he heard about an opening to drive for FedEx, he looked into the opportunity. He started last month.
Tipped servers and bartenders can make good money, he says, for those who have the personality to handle rude and demanding customers. But working as a dishwasher, line cook, prep cook is too much work for not enough money.
During he pandemic, the restaurant was short staffed, making the pace more grueling. There was the risk of contracting COVID from other workers and the public. And he had to remind customers to put on their masks when they got up from the table "15 times a day."
“This is our livelihood," he said. "We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing all the time." More recently, he noticed a shift in customer attitudes. "People are a little less concerned (about COVID) — and that’s concerning to me," he said.
He notes that most restaurant jobs are hourly, so workers don't know their pay from week to week. The hours are long and 401K plans and vacation pay are rarities.
Driving for FedEx is physical work, but it is “infinitely better” in terms of its earning potential. “I don’t miss the hours. I’m going to bed at a good time. I eat three meals a day. I will never go back. Absolutely not.”
Wages and costs increase
Joe Zolnierowski is chef at Nosh and co-owner of Old Pueblo Grill, both in Rochester. Before the pandemic, he'd start cooks at $13.50 per hour, with evaluations at 90 days, six months and a year. A cook that did well would be making $15 an hour by the end of the year.
Now, he is offering $15 for less qualified chefs, and "there’s no one out here to take those jobs.” He is spending more time and money on training. "I’m paying more per employee than I ever have as a baseline," he said.
Other costs have increased as well. New York's minimum wage increased at the beginning of the year, as did unemployment insurance.
New York state also has started to mandate sick leave for private sector workers, including restaurant and hospitality workers. Employees accrue an hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, and in many situations, the leave is paid.
“It's not a bad policy,” said Bates of the Finger Lakes, but adding it on the heels of the pandemic is a burden. The sick days can be used at any time for any reason, compounding the labor shortage. "One employee being off the shift, and we can’t operate," Bates said.
To compensate for rising costs, restaurateurs only have a few options. "We’re not magicians here," Zolnierowski said. Thus far, he has made do with fewer employees. "It’s creating more work for people. They are having to work in a tougher work environment.”
Swan says he believes that workers should be paid fair wages, but he also wonders what will happen when the rising costs begin to show up in menu prices. "Do you want to buy a $25 burger?”
Changes needed in industry
Charlie Fitzsimmons owns Two For Seven Restaurant Group, which runs several restaurants including Black & Blue Steak and Crab in Buffalo, Rochester, Albany and Boston. He has found it "impossible to hire staff," and he thinks a major factor is a general lack of people interested in the industry.
Few people aspire to be a dishwasher for the rest of their lives, he said. "Everyone wants to know that there’s opportunity — that they can grow and get better," he said.
"We need to make it more appealing and more of a legitimate professional opportunity," Fitzsimmons said. That includes creating positive work environments where people are treated with respect, taught new skills and are inspired to make a meaningful contribution to the business's overall plan, he said
Azanedo shared a similar perspective. "People have lost faith in the business," he said. "I think for people to come back you must show them you’re going to be busy; you must show them you’re adapting and pivoting to the times. You want to show them you’re able to succeed to give them confidence so they’re excited to keep working for you. I’m sure many are still contemplating leaving the industry.”
Jeanne Muchnick, food and dining reporter for lohud.com, contributed to this story.