Many area restaurant owners say they are now lucky to get a couple of applications a week from people seeking jobs
As Southwest Washington – like the rest of the state – has continued to see a rise in COVID-19 cases again, restaurants, pubs and bars have continued to face an array of challenges – ranging from a lack of workers to supply shortages.
“We had our restaurant roundtable call last week and the consensus is that the labor and supply shortage is going to be with us for quite some time,” said Mark Matthias, owner of Beaches Restaurant & Bar. “It could take a year or two for systems to recover.”
Southwest Washington restaurants are not the only ones who continue to be affected by the labor shortage that was initially caused by the pandemic – establishments all across the state of Washington continue to struggle with these challenges with still no end in sight as of yet. As of the week ending Sept. 3, 2021, job postings in Washington’s leisure and hospitality sector – of which food service is the biggest component – were up 24.4 percent from January 2020, according to data from Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights website. Job postings for all sectors combined were up 13.6 percent from January 2020.
“Our industry was hit harder than most because of the rollercoaster ride of closures and restrictions that drove people to other industries for stability,” Matthias said. “It pretty much hit all positions, although we were able to get to reasonable levels to get us through the summer months. However, it is interesting where historically we would get quite a few applications daily, now a restaurant is lucky to get a couple each week.”
Matthias said any incentives that they tried offering to new employees didn’t really seem to change people’s behavior to boost candidates. Many restaurants ended up changing up their hours of operation or even limiting days to adjust to the new staffing levels they have been experiencing. For Beaches, Matthias said they chose to close Mondays in order to condense the team to six days. He said this actually ended up working well for the business as they ended up doing more sales in six days than they did in seven, so they have maintained being open six days a week.
Randy Noia, general manager at WildFin American Grill located down at the Vancouver Waterfront, said the staffing issues brought on by the pandemic have for sure been a challenge for WildFin.
“We have been so blessed to have staff committed to maintaining high standards and willing to work however many hours necessary to make it work,” Noia said. “When we reopened last June (2020) we saw a 90 percent retention of former staff members coming back and wanting to work. There were a few who chose not to return and to leave the industry for ‘safer’ work environments. We have continued to pay above industry standards for our back-of-the-house employees as well as including them in a tip pool, which they would see on their weekly paychecks. After a year into COVID we started to see ‘COVID fatigue’ amongst many of our staff and there were definitely days when we struggled to staff due to people having to quarantine, etc., if they have exposure to COVID-19.”
As summer approached in 2021, Noia said they knew they would be needing to staff up for the busy season. In addition to that, some of WildFin’s sister restaurants in the Seattle area were struggling with staffing issues. As a company, he said they knew they needed to incentivize their existing staff as well as any new hires that were being recruited by other operators. WildFin’s leadership team came up with a prize incentive package that would put all existing employees into a lottery for cash prizes as well as entering all new hires into a lottery. This is a companywide lottery that awards cash incentives that will be paid out just prior to the Christmas holidays.
“I can’t tell you if there were people who stayed on to qualify for these cash prizes, but the fact that we were addressing the staffing shortage from a positive perspective did wonders for morale, and those who may have been feeling the effects of ‘COVID fatigue’ were seeing a renewed commitment to their jobs,” Noia said. “Staff appreciation and concern is a huge part of our culture at WildFin and we strive every day to take care of our staff and let them know how much we appreciate their efforts during these challenging times.”
Heathen Brewing Feral Public House in downtown Vancouver is another dining establishment that has had to make changes and adjustments due to challenges brought on by the pandemic. Sunny Parsons, owner and operator of Heathen Brewing, LLC, said the Feral Public House has definitely been affected by the labor shortage.
“We changed to an order-at-the-bar system versus table service,” Parsons said. “We cut our hours, so we are not open as late as we used to be. We have created a tip pool system the rewards both the front of the house as well as back of the house. This has a lot to do with our new model of ordering at the bar versus table service. It has allowed us to keep hours down and share the tip pool around, so everyone makes more tips per hour when less hours are worked with same amount of tips. We have focused on a positive culture and being as flexible as possible with the employees’ preferred schedule. It is a battlefield of a different sort.”
This story was first published by the Vancouver Business Journal and is published here with full attribution to the VBJ and with permission of Editor Joanna Yorke. The original story can be found here.