It is hard to get an accurate count because things are still so much in flux. However, it is estimated that more than 500 Utah restaurants have closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s close to 10 percent of all restaurants, and many more are just barely hanging on. The closures range from independents like Cannella’s, Mazza, Coachman’s and Fireside on Regent, to Dunkin’ Donuts and Wingers. Few in the food industry have been spared.
Oddly enough, most restaurateurs today aren’t suffering from a lack of customers, but from a lack of employees. Staffing is a struggle across the board in the hospitality industry. I recently spoke to a number of restaurateurs and food service employees about their staffing experiences — both positive and negative. Here is a peek into what these hard working folks are dealing with.
To give you an idea of the challenges that restaurant owners are facing when it comes to staffing, consider the plight of Barrio SLC co-owner Ryan Stover. “It’s a disaster, to say the least,” he began. “We’ve been over-hiring,” said Stover. “Because we know that if we hire five people, probably two will actually show up for their shift. Recently we had 26 people put in job applications and 15 that said they were going to show up for their interviews, and six showed up. We hired five of those six people; two showed up for work. And we’re paying $8 to $15 an hour plus tips for servers just to get them through the door. The problem, in my opinion,” he speculates, “is state unemployment [benefits]. To receive unemployment you don’t have to prove that you were interviewed for a job, you just have to show that you applied.”
Co-owner/Chef Justin Soelberg of Nomad East has been working long hours in the kitchen and is desperate for a cook and other staff members. “We’re just trying to hold out until the U gets back, hoping that some of those college kids will need jobs. Most of the front of our house are college kids, plus a few high school kids who buss tables.”
Soelberg says he gets a lot of resumes from people with no restaurant experience, “And that’s OK,” he says. “But it takes more than a few days to teach pizza making. You need a couple months to learn it really well. Cooking out of a 700 degree pizza oven — it’s pretty technical.”
Due to a lack of line cooks, Soelberg said, “I’m on the line every day, 60 hours a week. It’s grueling. That’s the biggest toll on chef-owners, I think. I don’t have time to do office work or even to put up an ad for a cook.” He doesn’t put the blame on unemployment compensation, however. “I haven’t really run into anybody saying they make more money on unemployment, not doing anything. We haven’t seen that.”
At Oquirrh restaurant, the owners told me, “We can’t open for more hours or do any private parties due to the [employee] shortage. You are lucky if staff come to work and if there is any sign of any sickness you don’t want them there. It’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it. We run with about five employees, total. They want insurance benefits, but you can’t get insurance without a minimum of 15 employees. It’s a mess.”
At Feldman’s Deli, they have had to limit their menu somewhat “Until we can get Janet off the line,” said Michael Feldman. His wife, Janet, does all of the cooking at the Deli these days and could really use a line cook or two. SOMI owner Michael Eng says that he’s offering $16 per hour to bussers but can’t find any so he’s doing the job himself.
Amy and Vivi Wanderly-Britt, founders of 360 Degrees Restaurant Group (Pig & A Jelly Jar, Pig Kitchen, WB’s Eaterly) see staffing their business as more than just hiring warm bodies. Amy Wanderly-Britt put in some time as a corporate trainer at McDonald’s and speaks very positively about their team-building processes. She doesn’t want to hire anyone who doesn’t really want to be there. She speaks of partnering with her employees. “We provide a supportive, collaborative working environment for our employees with the mentorship they need to build lasting careers, supporting themselves and their families.” It’s a group that I would want to work for if I were 40 years younger.
Les Madeleines’ owner Romina Rasmussen has been looking for a baker since Thanksgiving and says, with a sigh, that she’s had to scale back her wholesale business working with a smaller staff than previously, not to mention having to permanently close in-house dining and pivot to an all takeout model. But the kouign-amann queen says something echoed by many restaurateurs I spoke to saying, “We wouldn’t be able to go back to the old model even if we wanted to.”
Regis Perret, Grand America’s Senior Director of Food & Beverage, has a somewhat philosophical long view on staffing issues. He says, “I was just talking to my chef Fernando Soberanis the other day and we were saying that ‘For the last 10 years we’ve been struggling to find staff.’ It’s not a new thing. But we have had to significantly raise our starting wages, for sure.” He adds, “We were a little bit lucky I think because during the pandemic we never closed, so we didn’t lose most of our staff.”
Perret has been in the hospitality industry for many years and is critical of that industry. “As an industry, we are just getting what we deserve right now,” he says. “We’ve been paying people $2.15 an hour for the last 20 years. And we put people on the floor for 8 or 10 hours with no breaks. That’s just not the way this generation wants to work. We really need to rethink all this stuff.”
Cucina Wine Bar owner Dean Peirose is forward thinking and non-traditional in his approach to staffing. He recently raised all Cucina employees to a living wage of $15 per hour or more. He told me that he mostly dodged a bullet during the pandemic as regards staffing. However, “As one of the most notable restaurants in The Valley, we need to make sure we are treating our employees to the same first-rate standard.” Pierose added, “We believe that by investing in our team members, we are investing in the community and the future.”
At Log Haven restaurant, owner Margo Provost recently announced a retroactive summer wedding season bonus for hourly kitchen employees which, effectively, gives cooks and dishwashers a $2 per hour bonus for the time they work. In addition they offer signing bonuses for new employees. But maybe the future lies with the younger generation.
The folks at Log Haven attended job fairs in the spring to recruit banquet workers. My wife Faith, who handles events at Log Haven, says, “They are AWESOME!” when she speaks of the 16-year-olds they hired, such as Sam, Harvey and Jack. “They work hard, they don’t complain, and they are thrilled to be making good money,” she says.
When asked about working at Log Haven, Harvey said that one of the things they liked was that “We made friends.” And when we posed the question: Would you ever consider a career in hospitality as adults? Both of the 16-year old twins responded enthusiastically saying, “Yes, it’s been fun!”
Subscribe to Utah Stories weekly newsletter and get our stories directly to your inbox