Chef Matt Bolus

Source: Kelli LaMatia

Like many restaurant owners, Matt Bolus, head chef at The 404 Kitchen in Nashville, had to get creative last spring when the city closed due to Covid-19 mandates.

He kept some of his regular employees busy cooking meals for the local table, private dinners, and other bills-paying opportunities.

“You really grabbed every straw because you didn’t know when the end was,” he said.

As the city reopened and the mandates faded, Bolus saw an influx of guests returning to the restaurant. But now he is faced with a major challenge: to occupy the kitchen to meet the increasing demand.

“Unfortunately, the labor pool is still more of a work puddle,” he said.

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The pandemic has gutted the hospitality industry, which lost 2.5 million jobs in 2020, the National Restaurant Association reported.

Although restaurants created jobs in 2021, the unemployment rate among restaurant workers is still above the national average. But despite the unemployment rates in the hospitality industry, many restaurants are still unable to find workforce.

Nearly half of the establishments have 20 percent fewer staff than usual, the National Restaurant Association found.

In addition, the number of vacancies in accommodation and hospitality rose to nearly 1 million in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Although there have been debates about the persistent shortage of restaurant workers, some point to improved unemployment benefits.

“If you talk to restaurateurs, they’ll tell you that staying home makes a lot of their workforce more paid,” said Jean Chick, American restaurant and food service director at Deloitte in Chicago.

But others blame systemic problems that have plagued the restaurant industry for years.

“The places that want to continue the old model with no benefits, low wages and poor working conditions are having the greatest difficulty finding staff,” said Teofilo Reyes, chief program officer at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit that works for restaurants employs workers.

Leaving the branch

While the pandemic exacerbated staffing problems, the shortage of restaurant staff prior to Covid was an issue, Bolus said.

Nashville restaurateurs battled fierce competition for talent as the city welcomed a wave of new establishments. There were 112 new restaurants, bars or cafes in 2019, the third year in a row with more than 100 openings, according to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.

“In the 26 years I’ve been doing this, this has been possibly the toughest two-year patch I’ve ever seen,” said Bolus.

Nashville isn’t the only city to cope with a tight hospitality job market before the pandemic.

“We have been in what the press has dubbed the ‘hospitality staff crisis’ for over a decade,” said Ben Ellsworth, founder and CEO of GigPro, an on-demand recruitment app based in Charleston, South Carolina.

After years of struggling with labor shortages in Charleston restaurants, layoffs were made last March, which the College of Charleston estimates would have cut 65% of the city’s 28,000 restaurant workers by mid-April 2020.

While the workers struggled to pay the bills, many looked for jobs elsewhere. Some employees found higher-paying jobs with landscaping or construction companies, Ellsworth said.

Prior to the pandemic, veteran chefs in Charleston were making $ 15 or $ 16 an hour. With one-bedroom apartments renting in the area for more than $ 1,000 a month, it’s easy to see why some workers have left the industry, he said.

Health risks have also impacted the shortage as many workers have not felt safe returning to work, said William Dissen, chef and owner of Haymaker in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Restaurant workers, especially those who work in a small kitchen, were at risk during the pandemic. According to a study by the University of California at San Francisco, chefs may have been among the highest in terms of worker mortality from March to October 2020.

Since the 75% and 100% reopening, we’ve really been struggling. I advertise almost every day.

William Dissen

Chef and restaurateur

After mass layoffs across the country, burned-out restaurant workers may have taken the opportunity to pursue other career options, Ellsworth said.

More than a quarter of kitchen workers have left the industry permanently, according to a survey of 2,000 chefs from the personnel service provider Mis en Place. Some workers cited relatively low wages and long working hours as reasons for leaving.

However, a third of respondents say they plan to return but have not yet done so for a variety of reasons including finding the right opportunity (20%), Covid concerns (7%), and unemployment benefits or economic checks (6%) ).

On-demand settings apps

Although North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper recently lifted restrictions, many operators haven’t fully staffed restaurants, said Dissen, who also owns The Market Place in Asheville, North Carolina, and Billy D’s Fried Chicken in Asheboro, North Carolina, owns.

Restaurateurs often turn to Craigslist for a workforce, but there haven’t been enough responses lately to meet growing demand, he said.

“Since the 75% and 100% reopening, we’ve really had trouble,” said Dissen. “I run ads almost every day.”

As the industry continues to grapple with increasing labor shortages, Dissen turned to GigPro, an on-demand recruitment app, to cater for temporary needs like chefs or dishwashers.

“It was really amazing for our business [in Charlotte] To be able to fill in gaps when we need them, “he said.

Managers can offer higher wages for last-minute workers. For example, if the typical hourly rate for a dishwasher is in the range of $ 15 an hour, they may offer to pay $ 20 an hour for GigPro, Dissen said.

“I literally filled gigs in our restaurant within 5 minutes of it being released,” he said.

The app also allows managers and workers to try a shift together before taking the plunge into employment, said Bolus, who hired a handful of employees through the app.

“They have a chance to shine or they have a chance to go,” he said.

Cons of on-demand settings apps

However, employee representatives say that on-demand hiring apps can have some drawbacks.

“The main downside is that you are treated as an independent contractor,” Reyes said. “That means you won’t be subject to the few health and safety regulations we have under the Fair Labor Standards Act.”

Another potential deficit could be the increased risk of racial or gender discrimination based on the worker’s profile pictures on the app, he said.

“I think this is definitely something to monitor,” Reyes said.

I think these types of applications are just getting started and I think they will potentially revolutionize the way we work.

Matt bolus

Chef at The 404 Kitchen

A ‘bill’ in gastronomy

Still, some restaurateurs say changes in the hiring and recruiting process could be a good thing.

“I think these types of applications are just getting started and I think they may revolutionize the way we work,” said Bolus.

Another trend in the hiring process is offering applicants money to show up for interviews, Chick said.

“They say, ‘we’re actually going to give you $ 50 cash to show up for the interview,’ and then it’s the responsibility of the restaurant owner to sell them if he accepts the position,” she said.

As hiring managers test new recruiting strategies, some have noticed a shift in the dynamics between owners and employees.

“I think there was some kind of accounting in the restaurant business,” said Dissen.

While restaurants are auditing operations, there may be some steps to try to “improve the playing field” between owners and employees, he said.

But it will look different for each restaurant, depending on long-term debt, products sold, and how much they pay staff, he admits.

“I think it takes a lot of deep questions and maybe sleepless nights to find out what the answer is,” said Dissen. “But I think that’s how you stay fit for the future.”