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Blake Harmon has spent more than a month trying to recruit 10 new employees — from managers and line cooks to dishwashers and servers — for his restaurants in Salt Lake City and Midvale.
The co-owner of Curry Up Now Indian Street Food has posted “We’re Hiring” signs on the door, paid for online job advertisements, and even joined an industry employment page on social media, all in an effort to lure potential candidates to the quick-serve eateries.
“I’m spending so much money on advertising — in every avenue I can think of,” he said, “but I can’t get people to apply.”
Harmon is frustrated but not alone.
“‘Help Wanted’ is the new sign of the times for Utah restaurants and bars,” said Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association. “Finding staff is our number one issue in Utah and across the nation.”
As cases of COVID-19 plateau and the number of fully vaccinated people increase, people are feeling more comfortable going out, she said. Many have waited more than a year to eat inside their favorite neighborhood spot and are excited to return.
But with restaurants short-staffed — and many employees and managers working double shifts — diners need to be patient. They may have to wait for a table and their food may take longer to arrive, business owners say. The restaurant might not be open as early — or stay open as late — as usual. And there might be fewer menu options.
The employee shortage is just the latest blow to an industry that has already taken serious punches over the past 12 months, as the nation curtailed in-person dining and cut capacity to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
When restaurants were closed in March of 2020, employee numbers dropped from 110,000 statewide to 63,000, Sine said. The latest numbers show a rebound to about 90,000.
Unemployment benefits fuel the shortages
Sine doesn’t expect the staffing situation to improve until the first week of September. That’s when the additional $300 of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation runs out. That benefit was originally set to expire March 14, but it was extended with the recent passage of the American Rescue Plan.
Employees won’t willingly come back until they are assured the industry is stable. “In the past, we offered an employment opportunity with tremendous opportunity and growth,” Sine said. “That’s all on hold, people don’t know when the next government order or shutdown might be.”
While the extra unemployment money may be keeping some people from returning to work, restaurant owners believe there are other contributing factors.
After restaurant workers were laid off last year, many were able to find food delivery and other types of “gig” work — which has increased during the pandemic and often has better pay, Harmon said.
At least in some cases, former restaurant employees have not been able to return to work because of family responsibilities such as child care.
Still, others may be hesitant to return to the industry until more people are vaccinated or the state has reached herd immunity.
All combined, it has been difficult for businesses who want to rebound from the pandemic and expand, said Hoang Nguyen, a managing partner at the Sapa Investment Group.
The company’s marketing team spent most of March planning a company-wide job fair hoping to attract employees for its established eateries — Sapa Sushi, Fat Fish, Purgatory and Bucket O’ Crawfish — as well as its new Korean barbecue restaurant called OMO.
The team advertised for several weeks on radio and social media and offered live music and food as an enticement, said Nguyen. “But on the day of the career fair, not one person showed.”
The company still tried to open OMO with two servers and three kitchen workers, but within a week, it closed again. Nguyen said OMO needs about 25 employees to be fully staffed, and it’s not clear when the company will be able to hire that many people to reopen.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Nguyen said, “to build a restaurant you can’t open.”
Erica Taylor launched the Utah Service Industry Shenanigans Facebook page several years ago as a way to connect restaurants and bars that needed to hire employees to people who wanted a job.
Over the past few months, the job postings have increased from a few a week to several each day. Here’s what was posted one day this week:
• Mint Tapas and Sushi needs dishwashers.
• Our Kitchen Cafe has openings for part-time servers and cooks.
• Marco’s Pizza is looking for a delivery driver.
• Guadalahonky’s is searching for a part-time server.
• And From Scratch needs a line cook, dishwashers and a host.
Employee burnout is real
With such demand, though, restaurants have raised hourly pay to attract and keep employees, said Nguyen. That’s good news for many. “Anyone who is working,“ she said, “is making really good money.”
But it’s a double-edged sword as employees also are likely to be taking on extra shifts and working more than 40 hours a week. And that has consequences.
“Burnout is a real thing,” she said. “We’ve lost managers who have been with us 10 years or more because they’re so tired.”
Larger restaurant chains, hotels and ski resorts that can offer more money and better benefits can hire staff more easily than small, independent restaurants, said Matthew Sheridan, the general manager at Kuchu Shabu, a hot pot restaurant in Park City.
In a few instances, he said, devious tactics have been used to get employees.
Sheridan said earlier this year he hired a new sous chef. Two days into the job, the employee quit and returned to his previous employer, taking two experienced Kuchu Shabu kitchen staff members with him.
“He basically applied so he could poach our staff,” Sheridan said. “That’s cutthroat.”
A few existing employees also take advantage of the situation.
“They are showing up late or doing unacceptable things that normally would get people in trouble,” Sheridan said. “But it has to fly under the radar because we are desperate for workers.”
Kuchu Shabu — like many Park City restaurants — temporarily closes at the end of the ski season. Sheridan hopes when it reopens for summer in May, the employment issues will have stabilized.
“I’ve been in the restaurant industry for 17 years ... and I have never been in these staffing situations before,” he said. “Management is working 60 to 70 hours a week to fill the gaps and make the restaurant a success.”
That is not a sustainable business model, Sheridan said. “It definitely makes you rethink your career path.”