In theory, Gov. Roy Cooper’s May 14 announcement lifting mandatory capacity and gathering limits and allowing fully vaccinated diners to leave their masks at home should allow North Carolina restaurants to get back to a pre-pandemic normal. But in practice, Cooper’s announcement doesn’t change much for many local restaurateurs.
“What is driving restaurants’ decisions right now is the ability to staff front and back of house,” says Jane Anderson, executive director of Asheville Independent Restaurant Association. “That’s the biggest challenge right now.”
Chef Katie Button, who owns Cúrate and Le Bodega by Cúrate with husband Felix Meana, concurs. Before COVID-19, Katie Button Restaurants employed 140 people; the company is currently at 85. Getting back to pre-pandemic numbers, Button says, “will not happen overnight.”
If anything, Cooper’s announcement seems only to have added further pressure to restaurateurs buffeted by constantly changing health and safety protocols.
“It would have been helpful to have had both the CDC and the governor give a little more notice so businesses could prepare for the sudden shift,” Anderson explains. Ultimately, she believes staffing will dictate local capacity and operating hours.
Local restaurants seek staff through multiple platforms — their own websites and social media, industry groups’ social pages, Craigslist, Indeed and AIR’s online job board. But right now, food businesses from fast casual to fine dining are all scrambling simultaneously to hire from the same pool of potential employees.
“This year, to go from 18 people to 42, it took almost a month to reach what usually takes a couple of days,” says Robert Tipsword, operating partner at Zia Taqueria in West Asheville.
Joe Scully, who co-owns Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village and Chestnut in downtown Asheville with partner Kevin Westmoreland, has had a similar experience as they attempt to become fully staffed in anticipation of an influx of returning tourists and fully vaccinated people eager to dine out — and in. “Hiring did not used to be an expense,” he explains. “But if you’re going to be on Indeed for three to four weeks, it adds up. We had to hire 17 people in the course of three weeks, so it was a big deal.”
Competition is especially heated right now, says Laura Bogard Taylor, general manager of Well-Bred Bakery & Café, which has locations in Biltmore Village and Weaverville and a production kitchen and permanently parked food truck on Reems Creek Road. “Everybody needs people, but we can’t compete with other local restaurants and businesses paying dishwashers $20 an hour and offering a $500 signing bonus,” she points out. “I think we offer decent starting wages, but we can’t afford to do a full benefits package.”
She adds that the projected Wednesday, June 2, opening date of Well-Bred’s first downtown location in a 420-square-foot space in the Grove Arcade will depend on the availability of a sufficient workforce. “We have not been able to open inside our other stores, because a big part of the Well-Bred experience is our beautiful display cases. Those take a lot of hours and people to set up, and we just don’t have the staff for that right now,” she explains.
Restaurateurs say that while they have reached out to 2020 staff members who were laid off when the pandemic first hit, not all are coming back for a variety of reasons. “It’s been a very hard, arduous year for everyone in this industry,” Tipsword says. “I think it’s not surprising we have seen a lot of people get burned out and disillusioned. I can connect the dots and see people decide they want to do something different.”
Button sees the same. “If there is anyone in this world who didn’t reevaluate their life, their priorities, their work and what they want, then they didn’t feel this past year,” she says. “I don’t know anyone who hasn’t, including all of our employees — particularly those with children. Whatever systems people had in place to be able to work are not in place anymore.”
Though much has been written in the press and debated among federal and state government leaders about people not wanting to relinquish their unemployment benefits to return to work, Scully says he has not seen that himself. “It’s a hard industry, and there are employers and customers who do not have the appreciation they should for the people who work in it. But I have a hard time with some politicians saying people don’t want to work. I think most people want a sense of engagement and that they are useful in the world.”
Concurrent with the flurry of punches that landed on the hospitality industry last year, there has been an acknowledgement among many that as the world begins to open up, a return to business as usual is not a viable business decision.
“I believe there are things in our industry that needed fixed,” Anderson admits. “Are there positive things coming out of this crisis? Absolutely. Restaurant owners need to have conversations on how to make a better work environment, to produce a healthier work environment.”
Many restaurant owners who began those conversations during COVID-19 are doing their best to walk the talk. Tipsword says Zia will keep the popular parking lot dining area it created last summer, which is 65 seats and counter service only. The indoor dining areas, which reopened on Cinco de Mayo with 45 seats — less than 50% capacity — will be full service, at tables. The two areas combined bring him to his overall city-determined capacity, spread out to suit his guests’ preferences and not overwhelm staff.
Navigating 2020, Corner Kitchen went from serving breakfast, lunch and dinner five days a week and brunch and dinner on weekends to one daily menu that covered lunch and dinner. With more people hired, the restaurant will transition in June to separate shifts and menus for lunch and dinner and drop breakfast and brunch entirely.
“We did breakfast in Biltmore Village because we thought we had to be as many things to as many people as possible,” Scully explains. “Kevin and I decided it was not serving our employees, so we decided we don’t need to do it.”
Brunch will also be eliminated at Chestnut, which is moving to dinner only, seven nights a week. Despite what the state is allowing in terms of capacity, Scully states, “We will increase our capacity as we see fit, not by what the governor says. I don’t feel a huge amount of pressure to jam as many people as I can into our restaurants. I don’t want to shock the systems.”
Cúrate has been operating six dinner and three lunch services since mid 2020, but lunch will end June 1. “What we know is, as we go back towards full capacity opening, we have to do it slowly, intentionally and well,” Button says. “The demand for tables is there, but our plan is to rebuild dinner slowly and keep checking in with our team, what they are comfortable with, what is the right move for us and our team.”
Staffing a business may be a game of numbers, but Scully takes a geometrical approach. “We want to be sure we can maintain the equilateral triangle. That is the balance between what we offer our guests, the environment and support we have for our employees, and the interests of the ownership of the restaurant. If those three things are balanced and stay balanced, then we have achieved our goal.”