How Small Restaurant Owners Cope with the Labor Shortage

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Every few weeks it seems a new photo make the buzz on social networks showing a sign in a restaurant window stating: “This restaurant is closed because nobody wants to work.” Restaurant owners have, for months now, been quoted in articles and news broadcasts denouncing the current labor shortage, accusing the improved unemployment benefits adopted during the pandemic of discouraging returning to work.

But those benefits have already expired in some states – and some employment data suggests their elimination hasn’t exactly led to a wave of rehires. The best way to attract long-term workers (back to) the restaurant industry, according to many low-wage advocates, is to pay people more. With supply and demand, it is believed that higher wages will increase demand and the restaurant industry can resume operations. This money has to come from somewhere.

Chipotle CEO was paid $ 38 million in 2020; the CEO of Yum! Brands, which owns KFC and Taco Bell, took in $ 14.6 million; and the CEO of McDonalds, $ 10.8 million. These companies could certainly afford to pay their higher-level employees higher wages to get them back to work. But the restaurant industry is hardly monolithic, and these outrageous examples belied the complexity of an industry that is not only made up mostly of small businesses, but also relies on a larger supply chain. which faces its own calamities linked to the pandemic. Yes, executive pay in this country is out of control and workers are being paid too little. But not every restaurant can raise wages as easily as Chipotle or KFC could.

For restaurateurs and owners working on a much smaller scale, hiring and retaining staff during times of labor shortages has required flexibility. I spoke with independent non-chain restaurant owners to get a better idea of ​​how they meet their staffing needs. Each restaurant is a unique ecosystem, but among the restaurateurs I spoke to, a few key strategies emerged: pay themselves less (or last) in order to pay their employees more; create greater employee participation in the operation of the restaurant; and be proactive in adapting to a constantly changing world.

Small restaurateurs sacrifice their own wages

Eric Sze, an Eater 2021 New Guard member and chef-owner of 886 restaurant in Manhattan, says he considers himself a “very lucky owner” and hasn’t had too much trouble getting the staff back. Currently, 886 offers office workers an hourly wage of between $ 18 and $ 20, and the home front typically sees a minimum of $ 25. Sze and his co-owner, Andy Chuang, typically end up working around 18 hours a day, paying themselves $ 60,000 a year, but frequently foregoing a salary in certain weeks to make ends meet.

Ed Szymanski and Patricia Howard, who together own Manhattan’s new restaurant Dame and, like Sze, are members of the Eater New Guard 2021, “have had it relatively well,” Szymanski said. “We’re a lucky outlier with a small total membership of nine, including ourselves, and they’re all friends.” Since their staff is so small and each member interacts with guests, they can include everyone in the tip pool, with a base salary of $ 15, plus tips, which typically brings the hourly rate to about $ 40. They still have to pay.

Some restaurateurs control labor costs by paying themselves a percentage of revenue, like Matt Glassman, owner of Greyhound Bar & Grill in Los Angeles, or profit, like Sandy Levine, owner of Oakland and Chartreuse. in Detroit. Levine believes that the waiters and bartenders at his establishments could easily earn more than he does in any given week.

Owners find more ways to get employee buy-in

Ji Hye Kim, chef and owner of Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who was able to bring back all but two of the staff, set up a weekly all staff meeting where management and staff could talk openly. of the business and the restaurant’s security measures would follow. This meant they could work with the staff on the reopening schedule and strategy. “We opened slowly, in phases; it was not a unilateral decision, ”says Kim. The restaurant would not allow customers in, eliminate public restrooms, and when her patio opened, Kim was the only one working there for the first two weeks, citing staff fears of violence in reaction to the forced wearing of the mask.

Nelson German, owner of Sobre Mesa and Alamar in Oakland, said his reputation has enabled him to keep most of his staff, though he still lacks them: them. “He said he had always offered competitive salaries and granted raises to those who stayed during pandemic closures and reopenings.

Owners look to the future and look beyond the present moment

Many small-scale restaurateurs seem to reimagine endowment on a more philosophical level, thinking more than just the amount to be paid. Take accommodation: generally considered one of the most entry-level indoor positions, German treats it as a priority. “The host is a highly skilled position, you need to know how to defuse as well as strategize for seating an entire dining room.” He pays well for the position (several dollars an hour above the industry average), but still struggles to keep staff, and his wife replaces him often. “Guests are mean and a lot of people don’t want to take care of that. ”

Restaurants are also looking beyond what the law requires them to pay their staff and instead look to fair systems that not only treat people more fairly, but also allow for more flexibility when planning shift schedules. work. Kim has a One Fair Wage policy in place, which means workers with tips and workers without tips receive the same base hourly wage. It also allows them to share tips between the front and back of the house and allows staff to seamlessly transition between the front and back of the house as needed, allowing for greater flexibility. planning.

Most owners I spoke with predicted that the current labor shortage and other staffing issues will persist for the foreseeable future. Still, there is reason to be optimistic – at least for restaurateurs like German who are adapting and actively experimenting with ways to attract and retain staff. “The industry is changing and we need to take care of our employees. We can’t run without them, ”he said. “The people who have never treated people well are the ones who are in trouble right now.”

John deBary is the co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Community Foundation of Catering Workers, author of Drink what you want, and creator of Proteau. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @ jnd3001.



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