Restaurants and dining establishments everywhere are in a state of limbo, but many are taking a leap of faith and putting out “we’re hiring” and “help wanted” signs. More and more of us are scheduling our coronavirus vaccines and poking our heads out our front doors, making our own mid-transition plans for whatever post-pandemic life will look like. It’s no surprise the first new freedom many of us will gravitate toward is a good meal in our favorite fine-dining establishment.
“In the last month and a half, more people are feeling the need to get out of the house and go out to eat. Restaurants want to open up their plans and the patios and need more employees to do that,” says Michele Corigliano, executive director of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association.
While restaurants have seen a rise in business the last few months, she says, they’re struggling to find the staff to meet the increased demand. “If people stop into the restaurants near their homes and ask if they’re hiring, they’re going to find available positions,” says Corigliano.
Increased demand, without the necessary staffing, strains the quality of service a restaurant can provide. Even though they’re allowed to raise the number of available tables to their pre-COVID numbers, Corigliano says, many are choosing not to because they don’t have the cooks or servers to provide the level of service patrons expect.
“Taco Taco has been on limited hours, but we’re going to be opening back up, assuming we can find help,” says Joey Cannella, owner of Taco Taco and Cannella’s in Salt Lake City. “With just my current staff, everyone is working so hard, and we’re all hoping we can get other people in there just to make sure my staff isn’t going to burn out.”
Moudi Sbeity, the owner of Laziz Kitchen in Salt Lake City, says they plan on opening up their patio—that’s another 20 seats—in April, but right now, they are “In limbo.” He says, “We all panicked when COVID happened, but that wasn’t the scary part. I think, now, as the world comes back, we’re going to start realizing all the challenges that lay ahead of us.”
At the end of 2020, 110,000 U.S. dining and drinking establishments closed for business temporarily or for good, according to the National Restaurant Association. The industry closed out 2020 at nearly 2.5 million jobs below pre-COVID levels. And, at the peak of initial closures, the National Restaurant Association estimates up to 8 million employees were laid off or furloughed.
Restaurants now have the challenge of trying to get some of those employees back, and therein lies the rub. Some of those workers have simply moved on from the food service industry to explore other ventures. “Everyone in 2020 had an identity crisis, and we invested in ourselves. I did the same thing,” says Sbeity. “And now we’re like, ‘how do I put myself out there, I want to do something new?’ And the service industry took a large hit because many started their own companies or looked to other industries, and now we’re not left with enough people to meet the demand.”
Another part of the problem—people looking for work might assume restaurants are not hiring, given the struggles they faced during the pandemic. “Not a lot of people know they can go out and get a job and that we are doing well,” says Sbeity.
Corigliano agrees there is an issue with visibility. Currently, there is not one reliable place to go and see all of the Salt Lake area restaurants that are hiring. Corigliano says they are trying to fix that by making the SLARA website “a central place just for restaurant employees,” and she expects to pack it with job listings in the next week.
Cannella says some of the businesses downtown have not seen the same kind of resurgence experienced in other Salt Lake City neighborhoods. “Downtown has definitely been hit way harder than anywhere else in the suburbs,” he says. “The City-County building is still closed, people haven’t been going to the library or the Leonardo…it’s been like a zombie apocalypse for the last year.”
“Before the pandemic, there were always people looking for an opportunity. We were in a good spot, building a really great staff, and a lot of those people were super sad to have us close down,” says Cannella. Now, he says he gets “ghosted” by potential employees more often than not. “They set up an interview and then I never hear from them again.”
Sbeity has experienced this trend as well. “And if you do post a job,” he says, “people are just not showing up. I had nobody show yesterday.”
“We’re just trying to find people to work in the kitchen:just to work anywhere, really.” Cannella points to a couple of possible reasons as to why hiring has been a slog: expanded unemployment benefits and fear of in-person work. “I don’t think anyone wants to work right now,” he says. He also worries that fear will persist longer as the statewide mask mandate is lifted on April 10, before the state can achieve widespread vaccination.
Corigliano, on the other hand, says the increased unemployment benefits are not necessarily part of the problem. Along with stimulus checks, they have spurred spending and some of the additional patronage restaurants and other businesses are seeing. “I think the solution is getting the word out for people looking for part-time work,” says Corigliano. “This is a great industry to be in. The skills you learn working in a restaurant are invaluable. You learn customer service, to think outside the box and think on your feet, and you learn to take care of people in a way that no other job can teach you.”
No matter what factors are causing the dearth of available workers, the general consensus seems to be that things in the dining biz cannot, and most likely will not, remain as they have always been.
“Locally-owned restaurants have had a sort of identity crisis,” says Sbeity. “We need to rediscover our place in the community, and, in order to do that, we need support—not just with dollars but with hours.” Regaining that support might mean the industry significantly transforms the way it operates.
Restaurants are already dedicating more resources dedicated to takeout rather than dining in.
“During COVID, people got into the habit of getting takeout, and the takeout numbers are staying constant,” says Corigliano. “Before, it wasn’t a thing; now, you could see Salt Lake City transform into a place like New York City, where takeout is commonplace.”
Cannella’s, too, changed up its model to suit the times. The restaurant had to shut down its dining area last year, but for the last six months or so, they’ve served family meals for 8-10 people available for pick-up and takeout. Moving forward, Joey Cannella says, “I’m trying to work with other chefs and possibly do pop-ups and rent the space for weddings. We’ve got to change the business model for sure.”
“We’ll have to start rethinking how we treat our food service workers,” says Sbeity. “Where in the past, you could live on an hourly wage, maybe we need to have a radical shift in how we pay cooks or servers.” With fewer people dining in during the pandemic, Sbeity’s servers received fewer tips. To compensate, he says he raised their pay to $7.25/hour plus tips. (The minimum wage for tipped employees in Utah is $2.13/hour.) He’s considering setting servers’ base pay for $3.25/hour plus tips, but if they don’t make $15/hour that pay period, the restaurant covers the difference. “We know what we’re worth now,” says Sbeity.
Before the pandemic, Laziz Kitchen was renovating its backroom, but COVID halted that construction. In the future, Sbeity says, they’re hoping to finish the project and use it to expand their dining options and capacity.
In addition to opening up their Cannella’s space for events sometime around October, Joey Cannella hopes to get the hours at Taco Taco back to normal sooner rather than later. He says he is hopeful for things to start turning around in April and May. “We’re ready to help feed some folks.”
Until restaurants can settle into the “new normal” and fill open staff positions, patrons should expect a different dining experience as well. Sbeity asks people to “release your expectations. A lot of restaurants are understaffed. Your food might be a little late. They might forget some things. Be a bit more kind. Be compassionate.” And, if you can, “encourage your friends to go out and apply. You can walk into any restaurant and ask. They’re hiring.”
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