Local restaurants are desperate for workers.
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the November, 2021 issue
"We're dealing with the same headache that plagues everyone in the restaurant business in Ann Arbor, in Michigan, in the whole United States: a critical shortage of workers," reports Olsi Gjini, general manager of Mediterrano.
"The reason I'm answering the restaurant phone myself is a testament to the fact that we're short-staffed," says Paesano owner Michael Roddy.
"Some predicted that when unemployment benefits for self-employed workers ended on September 4, we'd see a rush of people applying for restaurant jobs. But that's not the case." In October, he was seeing some applicants trickle in, "but definitely not like normal-at least not yet."
The acute shortage of workers has forced most independently owned restaurants to close at least one day a week (almost universally, Mondays), adjust their hours, delay orders, and even recruit family members to work in kitchens and at hostess stations. And they are increasing incentives to attract and retain employees.
"Some of those changes were happening before Covid, but the pandemic has quickened the process," Gjini says. "We were seeing hourly wages hit $15, and they're higher now. It's a question of supply and demand-and the demand is much higher than the supply."
Staff shortages forced Sava Farah and chef Louis Maldonado to delay the opening of Dixboro House, their destination restaurant on the former Lord Fox property (Marketplace Changes, September). The Boro, its casual companion, is open, but "we definitely feel the employee shortage," says manager Ben Brown. Farah's Pulpo Group, which also owns Sava's and Aventura, is paying workers a $150 bonus for every new employee they refer, and the same amount to new hires if they stay beyond sixty days.
"It's a very competitive market," says Zingerman's Roadhouse manager Lisa Schultz. "We've had to raise salaries as much as $5 an hour for some positions … We also provide free dental, vision, and 401Ks. That's not common in the restaurant industry."
Traditionally, local restaurants relied on U-M, EMU, and WCC students for waitstaff and
delivery drivers during the school year, but they're seeing fewer of them lately. "I don't know if parents are asking their children to be more careful about their health or if students are more affluent these days, but we're not seeing the numbers of student workers we had several years ago," Gjini says.
When Paesano's summer workers left for distant schools, Roddy found himself spending long hours at the host stand, delivering take out meals to waiting cars and explaining to potential customers why waits were long. "We have so little staff to stretch through the week, yet business is still incredible," he says. "Fortunately, our long-term customers have been very considerate. Those are the people who stayed with us and supported us during the pandemic."
Every restaurant interviewed except the Boro has cut back days of service, and all have cut their hours. Even so, says Conor O'Neill's Tom Murray, the future "definitely" looks rosier than it did a year ago.
"We have 100,000 people at the stadium during home football games, and they help us all," he says. But trying to compare his current business with where it stood pre-pandemic "is like comparing apples to oranges, since we have had to shorten our hours, cut out lunches, and shut down completely on Mondays."
For Mediterrano, the staff shortage is particularly acute in the kitchen. "All experienced labor seems to have disappeared, and in the kitchen we need a level of experience and expertise," Gjini says.
Zingerman's Roadhouse is "doing about eighty or eighty-five percent of the business we did before the pandemic hit," Schultz says. "We have the customers. We just don't have the help needed to cook for them and serve them." One response has been to hire "more high-schoolers than ever before"-though the students had to cut their hours when classes resumed in September.
Conor O'Neill's also now hires high school students as hostesses, Murray says-though not as waitstaff, because "no one under eighteen can serve alcohol."
Where have the employees gone? Before the pandemic, Roddy says, Paesano had twenty-nine employees. Six young women were preparing to graduate. "That left twenty-three," he says. "We now have thirteen; we're still missing ten.
"I know a couple entered different careers during the pandemic. Several who are on vacation have told us, 'Maybe we'll see you in a month.' But I'm not counting on those who are on the sidelines, at least until I see the whites of their eyes."
"During the pandemic, many of our workers had time to rediscover themselves," Gjini says. "Some applied at different industries, some opened their own small businesses, some were tempted by permanent jobs that come with tempting benefits. Amazon, for instance, is offering twenty dollars per hour for warehouse workers. That's what restaurants have to compete with these days.
"The hospitality industry is very challenging," he says. "Right now, stress is high, hours are tough, and the demand for our services is growing. We all have the potential to grow our business and revenue-but we need employees to do that.
"This shift in the workforce will take a while to adjust," Gjini predicts. "The dust hasn't settled yet."
It doesn't help, he adds, that "we're seeing a big shift in the mood of our customers." Early in the pandemic they were "fantastic … they were willing to wait for their takeout, they tipped generously, they were grateful for what we were doing for them. "
Now, he says, "they're demanding. Their behavior is questionable. They act as if they're doing us a favor. They treat our employees terribly. And all my friends in the industry are saying the same thing …
"I want to know why people have become ruder and meaner since the pandemic! What happened to treating people with humility and kindness?"
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