Kitchens and dining rooms attempt to power up to feed a vaccinated audience. However, many restaurants are struggling to find the staff they need to return.
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On a cold April evening, Chef Dave Becker is playing with a heat lamp on the terrace of Juniper, his Eastern Mediterranean restaurant in Wellesley. Before turning to troubleshooting propane detonators, Becker ran to the Target stores a few hours earlier in the day trying to find heated blankets for guests who want to eat outside and catch a glimpse of a promised meteor shower.
Like any cook, Becker would prefer to spend more time in the kitchen. But there is much to be done when vaccinations are introduced, the world is reopened and restaurants – that survived the winter anyway – are preparing to finally feed more people and get their businesses back on their feet. But right now there’s also a big problem: there aren’t enough people to get everything done.
“I’m a middle-aged chef who has dedicated his whole life to this topic, and I only wear sneakers,” says Becker. He is so well prepared for the possibility that a task might arise for which there is simply no other employee available. He is not alone. Restaurant owners all over town tell me that they are having trouble getting ex-employees back to work, and that’s a big problem with getting all four cylinders up and running.
“It is heartbreaking that as we prepare to get our feet back on the ground, this extreme shortcoming is affecting every restaurant from Boston to Provincetown, Newburyport to Pittsfield and everywhere in between,” said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurants Association . According to Luz’s census, about 255,000 restaurant workers were laid off after the first nationwide shutdown in March last year. So one might expect that there would be a huge onslaught of laid-off people racing to get back to their old jobs. And there is no doubt that those with the most severe cabin fever and the most acute restaurant bug ate at the piece to lace their aprons or lift a serving tray.
However, considering the reasons disinterested former employees give their former employers, it is easier to understand why – for many other workers anyway – the incentive to return to the industry is not necessarily present at the moment. While enhanced vaccinations alleviate public health fears, concerns remain about the wisdom to get back to working with the public. Plus, much of the emotional satisfaction of hospitality work is still missing: instead of offering friendly regulars smiles, hugs, and handshakes – all that make the long hours and my wages worthwhile – restaurant workers are often forced to play mask the police, take care of confrontational clients and seek motivation in these difficult conditions.
Why go back and deal with all these risks and headaches when the takeaway pay from currently stripped down dining rooms is sometimes little better than an unemployment check? “This situation gave people plenty of time to think about their next steps in life – whether they wanted to wait for tables or bartenders, or to get a more stable, full-time job with benefits,” said Charles Griffin, former bartender at Becker’s Juniper and Boston’s House of Blues. His hiatus during the pandemic gave him rare time to stop and think about where his career was going. Though he returned to work for a while, all of those empty restaurant seats meant he was making about two-thirds less than normal times. In the end, Griffin decided, like many migrant workers who had undertaken a meaningful soul search during the Great Break, that he wanted to change the path and find work that might turn out to be less unpredictable and strenuous and more stable, better paying and better. balanced with his lifestyle. He now works for a small family of liquor stores and runs one of the stores.
Griffin’s experience matches the feedback many restaurant owners hear. After Chef Will Gilson asked for ideas on social media about what restaurant staff really want, he found the work-life balance was the overwhelming response. According to Gilson, many senior workers have told him that for the first time in their careers – thanks in part to unemployment benefits such as subsidized daycare – they were able to rebalance and spend quality time with their families, something that the long night and weekend shifts of restaurant work made easy not allow. As a result, they are now more interested in the 9-to-5 chase.
“People have actually had time to relax, and it takes some persuasion to get them going again,” says Gilson. Overall, he’s increased pay by around 25 percent to try to attract more staff to his Cambridge restaurants, including three different businesses – Cafe Beatrice, Italian restaurant Geppetto, and rooftop restaurant Lexington – which he opened on the mixed-use Cambridge Crossing development during the pandemic. Looking ahead, he also believes the shortage will only speed up calculations in the hospitality industry on how to close the wage gap between workers in front of and behind the house.
In the meantime, restaurant owners are not only trying to offer their most competitive wages, they are doing everything possible to lure reluctant workers back. Kristin Canty, a natural food attorney and owner of Woods Hill Pier 4 in the seaport and Woods Hill Table and Adelita restaurants in Concord, Massachusetts, even tries to build camaraderie by taking overnight team trips to her farm and inn. like Lodge in New Hampshire; Employees can also spend the night there alone for free. Nevertheless, she simply lost employees for other career paths. For example, one of her managers had a career as an accountant.
Managers may even use the cash to offer signing bonuses to bring their MVPs back, says Ed Kane, owner of Big Night Entertainment Group, a veteran team whose local portfolio includes Guy Fieri’s Tequila Cocina, Pan-Asian hotspot empire. and the sprawling nightclub The Grand, which will remain closed until the newly announced August 22nd for the city to reopen. While Kane doesn’t currently offer such rewards himself, he knows he may need to get creative to reach Big Night’s pre-pandemic number of 1,400 employees (at some point). While he has enough on board to keep things moving for the moment, he also wants to be able to keep adding hours and other aspects of the operation when the world returns to normal.
When the time comes, the masks will be removed and the two meter distance restrictions lifted, at least helping the “assertion fatigue” that Kane says is preventing exhausted employees from returning.
“They’ve just finished dealing with people and telling them to put their masks on or they’ll have to go,” says Kane. “People just don’t want to do it anymore, and the amount of abuse my co-workers suffered last week was beyond pale. Even seasoned people said, “Call me in two months if we don’t have to.”