Food & DrinkFood Features

Local Restaurateurs Struggle To Hire Staff as Eateries Reopen

At your service?

Late-night talk-show host Conan O’Brien recently joked on social media about “a meal service where instead of sending me ingredients, they make the meal and serve it to me at their place of business. And booze.”

We all miss restaurants.

Most of us are ready to return to any sense of normalcy, eat something outside of our own kitchens — and have a damn cocktail. And a hell of a lot of people who struggled through the last year are ready to return to work. But what work are they ready to return to? Not restaurant work, it would appear.

According to the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance’s latest quarterly economic report, Charlotte-area employment in the leisure and hospitality industry went up 3.5% in the fourth quarter of 2020, better than the .7% decrease nationwide. However, the local industry’s employment rate was still down 23.7% compared to Q4 2019. Across the nation, that average was a stark 3%.

So, what the hell is going on?

As more of the population gets vaccinated and restrictions on restaurants continue to loosen, one would think Charlotte restaurant owners are having no problem bringing their staff back to work or filling necessary vacancies. Yet many owners and managers have publicly expressed the opposite, stating that they’ve had trouble finding folks who are ready and willing to jump back into the service industry.

QC Nerve recently reached out to a handful of chefs, managers, and owners to find out their perspectives as they begin to restaff their restaurants. Here’s what we found.

Dalton Espaillat

CEO & owner, Raydal Hospitality (Sabor Latin Street Grill, Three Amigos, La Caseta)

We have been recently on an aggressive hiring spree targeting different outlets to attract candidates. What we found is that job postings, Facebook ads, blast emails, employees sharing the job posting, etc., has come with little fruition either due to applicants just applying to check for an unemployment requirement or people from the food industry that were laid off found themselves working in other industries that had a higher need for labor such as the construction industry, which pays higher wages.

Also, with the PPP funds and requirements for employers to spend it on labor, we’ve seen a temporary pay raise for employees that are unsustainable for us to match under our business model.

Our minimum wage is $10 an hour with zero experience and goes from $12-$15 depending on experience. We offer every employee a path to success so they can reach that higher end of the pay scale.

Jeff Tonidandel

Co-owner, Tonidandel-Brown Restaurant Group (Supperland, Haberdish, Crepe Cellar, Growler’s Pourhouse)

Staffing has been quite difficult as of late. Staffing is our biggest challenge to getting back up to full speed. We have long hired back all of our old staff that are still in the workforce and we have a huge need at every position. In fact, we started the process a few weeks ago because if you just start now, a new recruit might give two weeks notice at their old job and require two weeks of training at their new job, which could put us behind the eight ball if things go full open in the next few weeks.

Every small tweak made by the governor has ripple effects throughout the whole organization — an adjustment of just a few hours might seem small but they put people into overtime, leave shifts understaffed and put a lot of stress on our labor force. Much of this is because we are trying to run so lean and maximize earnings for the staff we have left.

Supperland Plaza Midwood Restaurant
The dining room at the recently opened Supperland restaurant in Plaza Midwood (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Chris Coleman

Chef & partner, The Goodyear House

Charlotte over the last five to six years has had a major problem with supply and demand as it relates to labor, way before the pandemic came around. It’s been hard to find the right people  — front of the house and back of the house staff — just because of the popularity of our dining. We’ve had an amazing culinary scene boom, and I think it’s something we’re all appreciative of and thankful for. But with that scene blowing up, we haven’t seen the influx of professionals to staff those restaurants.

From a Goodyear House perspective, we had to lay off around 50 employees at the beginning of the pandemic and we rehired about 80% of those folks when we reopened, and ran with that skeleton crew for most of the winter. We’ve reopened our hiring process just in the past few weeks and haven’t had a whole lot of people jump at the opportunity to work with us. And I don’t really see it as us not being a desirable place to work. Front-of-the-house [employees] certainly make a really good living here. We pay our back-of-house employees all a livable wage — and right around the top of what the average is in Charlotte. It’s almost like you went from having a few dozen restaurants open to having a few hundred open all at once.

ghost kitchens
`Chris Coleman with Goodyear House (Photo by Peter Taylor)

Jay Davis

Co-owner, Lulu’s Maryland Style Chicken & Seafood/HideAway Bar & Lounge

From LuLu’s restaurant to HideAway Bar & Lounge, the common issue that we’ve seen has been lack of interest in employment. There are many who are still collecting unemployment and have no interest in returning to work. Some who are interested in employment also tend to be underqualified for the roles they apply for. There are also a number of candidates who interview very well but then under-deliver. All of these various challenges can also produce high turnover, particularly in the restaurant industry.

LuLu's Maryland Style Chicken & Fish in Charlotte
Jay Davis of LuLu’s Maryland Style Chicken & Fish and HideAway Bar & Lounge (Photo by Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.)

Lewis Donald

Pitmaster & owner, Sweet Lew’s, Dish

We all know it’s tough to find staff. I think I’ve looked at what I’m hiring differently. I’m hiring people that need work vs. want to be a chef. I’m hiring the intangibles: work ethic, being early not late, teachable. I’ve gone back to working interviews and rely on the whole team’s evaluation. Honestly, I think one of the best things Dish and Sweet Lew’s did with PPP money was to retain our staff. We’re staffed now to do 2019 revenues.

Lewis Donald in Dish (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Jamie Barnes

Chef & partner, What the Fries

It’s been a very difficult time right now for us to find cooking/prep staff. With us being new to the brick-and-mortar side, we are still trying to get fully staffed. We are helped in the meantime from family and close friends but still need a few more solid people with experience. We are extremely busy but haven’t been getting much serious leads. Many times it’s a person already with multiple jobs to juggle and it looks like for-certain burnout if we were to hire them.

I think the demand now for personal chefs and people’s drive to be their own boss has shifted the chef world. There seem to be less people wanting to get in kitchens and learn and grow. More so like, “Hey I just graduated culinary school and I sold 40 plates of food to friends and family from Instagram. Why do I need to come work for you?” Not knocking it, but that’s what I see a lot.

What The Fries restaurant
What The Fries owners Jamie Barnes (left) and Greg Williams (Photo by Peter Taylor)

Bruce Moffett

Chef & owner, Moffett Restaurant Group (Barrington’s, Stagioni, Good Food on Montford)

It feels as if a lot of people just left the industry altogether during COVID. That coupled with the fact that we added so many restaurant seats in Charlotte over the last two years. What was already a struggle — to keep restaurants staffed — is now becoming a monumental struggle. That’s definitely my biggest stressor is labor right now. There have been times when you just want to throw your hands up in the air.

Right now actually — for the first time in two years — I feel like we’re in good shape at Barrington’s. We haven’t brought everyone we had pre-pandemic so we’re still down servers — we’re just not busy enough to bring them back. People who have been with me at Barrington’s up to 16 years are only getting one shift a week. But most of the kitchen staff is back.

William Dissen

Owner, Haymaker and The Market Place (Asheville)

It’s been a wild year. I hate using the word “pivot,” but every restaurant has had to pivot, and then pivot again, and then pivot again. And hopefully, this is the great pivot back towards normal. And the conundrum that’s happening right now — lots of times in the spring, people are ramping up again after the winter, expecting busier times — but not every restaurant is necessarily understaffed. Right now, literally every single restaurant is understaffed. It’s creating a bottleneck as there are so many candidates in the market. Then you also have the variable that there’s a lot of people still on unemployment who are okay to stay where they are, staying on unemployment until it expires. And then there’s also folks thinking, “I don’t feel safe going back to working in a restaurant environment, maybe not until I’m vaccinated.”

Nobody’s there in the towers — the 100,000 people who work in the towers — they’re not there. The 20,000 people that are there for conferences, business travel, etc., they’re not there either. I think the rest of Charlotte is going to trend up before Uptown. You literally go across I-277 into South End and it’s like 2019 is going on.

Haymaker restaurant
William Dissen serves it up at Haymaker (Photo by Michael Hrizuk)

Travis Hearne

Chef & owner, The Dunavant

We are very fortunate at The Dunavant to be at 85% of our staffing. We have worked so hard to make sure everyone was paid and taken care of since the pandemic started. Sure we need a couple of people here or there, but it’s nothing like what the community at large is going through and I have no one to thank but my staff. They have picked up the slack every step of the way to fill in for positions that we don’t have, they work extra hours and take on extra responsibilities and go above and beyond and because of them, we are truly blessed.

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