Editor’s note: Local restaurants continue to adjust operations based on health guidelines. Check individual websites for the latest updated requirements.
Despite Gov. Roy Cooper’s May 14 executive order lifting all mandatory capacity and gathering limits, Sean Piper, owner of West Asheville’s Jargon, has kept his restaurant’s seating capacity at 50%. The decision is unrelated to ongoing health concerns.
“The staffing shortage is unprecedented,” he exclaims. “In the past, we’d receive a dozen responses for a job posting. Now we’re lucky if we get even one.”
Along with limited seating, Piper is currently not accepting parties larger than six. “Groups are difficult with such a limited staff,” he explains.
If staffing issues persist, Piper continues, “We’ll consider closing a day or two a week.”
Piper, of course, is not alone in his dilemma. Despite current state unemployment numbers showing over 230,000 without work, many in the local restaurant industry say job openings continue to go unfilled. This, paired with a growing demand from eager diners, has some in the industry reconsidering their approach and wondering what the long-term impact of the present staffing shortage will have on Asheville’s food scene.
Day late, buck short
While signing bonuses have become one way to draw in new staff, some local business owners say they can’t afford to fork out thousands of dollars in the hope of retaining new employees — especially with the lingering financial impact of COVID-related closures.
“The news keeps saying if restaurants paid more, more people would apply,” says Matt Danford, owner of Blue Mountain Pizza in Weaverville. Yet even with his servers making over $20 an hour, Danford notes, staffing remains a challenge.
“Sign-on bonuses are taking good people away from us,” he laments.
In some instances, he continues, the pizzeria has lost employees who have worked at the Weaverville restaurant for nearly a decade, lured by additional pay. “They left to get a dollar more an hour,” he says. “It’s a sticky situation because we don’t want to get in a bidding war. We have to maintain our business model. If we give one person a raise, we have to give everyone a raise, and we can’t afford to keep doing that.”
On the subject of hiring bonuses, Piper adds, “We’ve chosen not to go down that road. Instead, we’ve done our best to offer competitive starting wages and raises after 90 days of employment.”
Like Piper, Eric Scheffer, owner of Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian and Jettie Rae’s Oyster House, also offers bonuses to staff members once they complete their 90-day trial period, as well as a living wage, tip share and free primary care. But such incentives, he notes, were in place before COVID-19.
A perfect storm
For others in the industry, the pernicious puzzle of the current staffing shortage goes beyond dollars and cents. “We’ve run into a lot of issues, like not having enough qualified applicants or having people apply, set up an interview and not show up,” says Peter Pollay, owner of Asheville eateries Posana, Bargello and District 42
George Frangos, the founder and owner of Farm Burger, echoes Pollay’s claim. “For every 10 people that apply and schedule an interview, only one shows up,” he says. “The biggest issue is that there are fewer people in the workforce.”
Explanations for the shortage vary. Some restaurateurs who spoke with Xpress believe many members of the city’s younger workforce simply left the area during the pandemic and have not returned. Others expressed concern that ongoing unemployment benefits have discouraged former employees from rejoining the workforce. Current federal benefits provide $300 per week, though assistance is set to expire in September.
Additionally, notes Pollay, many former workers have moved on from the food and beverage industry. “They took the time off to explore their passions and work on their personal goals, and now they’re branching out into other things,” he says.
Local restaurant owners note that long wait times caused by understaffing, inexperienced employees and other pandemic-related factors can lead to disgruntled and poorly behaved guests.
“Most of our customers have been understanding and supportive,” Danford says. “But when we asked customers to wear a mask, servers would get berated by angry customers at least once a day. No one wants to deal with that.”
Piper adds, “Many service industry employees simply got exhausted by the cruel treatment displayed by some guests.”
For these reasons, restaurateurs are also navigating how to make life bearable for the dedicated employees they still have. One solution has been cutting hours, not because they can’t afford to stay open, but because they can’t afford to burn out their staff.
Blue Mountain Pizza is among this group. Prior to COVID-19, the pizzeria operated six days a week; however, due to current staffing issues, it’s now closed an additional day. “We’ve had no choice,” Danford says.
Farm Burger is in a similar situation. “Everyone is working hard, and extra time off is needed,” Frangos says. “Our employees need a mental and physical break. Last month we were closed for three full days so our staff could recoup. Right now, we’re about 70% staffed, and we need twice as many employees as we did six months ago.”
The end of an era
According to Piper, one silver lining is a widespread movement toward competitive starting wages and regular raises. “I feel it’s a good thing,” he says. “There are too many places that don’t pay their employees a living wage, and folks working in the industry have had enough.”
Frangos concurs. “This is an unprecedented labor issue, but it’s helping wages grow.”
Scheffer, however, warns that the shortage could lead to a crash-and-burn scenario and a subsequent wake-up call.
“We have a responsibility to each other and to our community,” he says. “We need to work together and help one another. The moment the engine stops, the moment people stop contributing to their community and to society and start relying on someone else for their daily bread, that’s when society crumbles.”