Danielle Scott never thought she’d be turning customers away from her restaurant, but without a full staff behind her, she’s had to limit the hours at Lucy’s Cafe in Grand Rapids.
The dine-in restaurant experience was sorely missed through the worst of the pandemic, and with few entertainment options fully restored, customers are flocking back to Michigan’s eateries — but workers are not.
“Some days I just want to cry,” Scott said. “We’re doing so well. Business is great, but we don’t have enough staff so I have to pull [dinner].”
Between concerns around health risks and wages, many restaurant workers have used the pandemic as a chance to catch their breath and reevaluate their career paths. Others have used increased unemployment pay as a launch pad to create their own businesses. And some are just plain done with being political punching bags for angry customers.
Meanwhile, restaurant owners have become line cooks, working 16-hour days and fielding calls from “ghost applicants” that never result in job interviews. Menus and reservation time slots are becoming more limited as “help wanted signs” linger in windows.
The restaurant industry is facing staffing shortages nationwide, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry Report.
The group surveyed 1,000 patrons and 6,000 business owners who answered questions about interactions and changes within restaurants.
Among full-service restaurants surveyed, 9 out of 10 reported staffing levels lower than they would be were it not for the pandemic. A majority of limited-service restaurants reported staffing levels below normal as well.
In Michigan, full-service restaurants added 37,000 jobs in February as the dine-in ban ended. They added another 6,000 jobs in March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although employment is increasing compared to last spring, thousands of restaurant jobs are still left unfilled compared to pre-pandemic standards. Dine-in restaurant jobs accounted for 3% of all Michigan jobs in January 2020. Those jobs now make up 12% of all unrecovered jobs in Michigan.
Related: As Michigan restores restaurant jobs, industry is back to 84% of pre-pandemic levels
Business should be booming
After months of limited social gatherings, Michigan residents were eager this spring to go back to indoor dining as a way to connect with coworkers, celebrate birthdays and meet up with friends.
In a March phone survey by the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, 54.6% of the 600 respondents said they ate inside a restaurant since Michigan’s dine-in ban ended on Feb. 1.
“The only thing anyone’s got to look forward to right now is going out to eat and getting a drink from a bar,” Scott said.
The Grand Rapids breakfast joint was gaining traction with a new dinner menu added last summer, but there’s no staff to sustain it, Scott said. She and her three cooks are working anywhere from 14 to 16 hour days with Scott herself back on the line.
“I am just 100% a line cook right now I can’t focus on my business,” she said. “Trying to find more staff, to be honest, I don’t even have time to do it because I’m cooking all day.”
The pandemic has shined a light on vulnerabilities in the restaurant industry that have long existed — staff recruitment being the most visible.
In Mackinaw City, Bière de Mac Brew Works is a rare find in that it operates year-round. Co-owner and head brewer Danny Ranville describes it as running two different businesses between winter and summer.
Ahead of the tourism wave, Ranville usually has a stack of applications to fill 35 to 40 positions.
“Now, I can’t even buy an employee,” he said.
His staff is down to 10 people. Ranville and his father, with whom he owns the brewery, have made the decision to close the kitchen this year and have booked food trucks to fill in the gap.
It was a tough and emotional decision to abandon a menu that earned them a reputation, he said.
“The verdict is still out if it was the right move, but the fact of the matter was it was the only move,” he said. “There was no choice. There’s nobody here to cook food.”
Ranville spent thousands on advertising, but ended up with what he calls “ghost applicants” or workers who set up interviews but never show, Ranville said.
Bière de Mac has increased its wages to entice workers to come back, but Ranville feels he’s competing with unemployment checks.
“You can’t even blame the people, they’ve been incentivized to not go out and get a job,” he said.
The requirement to search for work in order to be eligible for unemployment has been suspended since March 2020. It will be reinstated by the end of May, Stephanie Glidden, chief of staff for the agency, said at a Michigan House Oversight Committee hearing this month.
New options and better hours
Workers say staff shortages are a symptom of larger issues in the industry.
Detroit chef Randi Black said her unemployment check felt like reparations for working long hours for low wages for 15 years in the business.
“Even though it’s more than we expected, it’s still going to average out the same amount of hours that we’ve been getting taken out of our checks all the years that we’ve been working,” she said. “It’s not just free money, it’s money that I have worked for.”
Black is passionate about what she creates in the kitchen, but she no longer wants to describe herself as a “starving artist.” The reckoning the restaurant industry is going through has been a long time coming, she said.
“People have to understand that we’re actually in [the kitchen] because we love what we do,” she said. “I think a lot of businesses have taken a little bit advantage of that because the good chefs that I know have all started different careers.”
Black and a group of fellow chefs used the pandemic and their stimulus checks as an opportunity to start a catering business. She now works part-time as a pastry chef to supplement her catering work.
For Black and her friends in the industry, the pandemic was the tipping point for reevaluating how the industry treats its’ workers. She said she’s seen some restaurants be humbled by the shortage while others still have an ego.
Ultimately, she said, workers will return to the businesses where they feel they’re valued.
“It’s just a domino effect and we’re at the end of the dominoes, we’re at the last three dominoes,” Black said. “Is the last one actually going to stand for us to get the industry back up?”
There are some restaurant workers who have said good riddance to restaurants altogether. Prep chef Jessi Durocher quit her job at the Hilton Garden Inn in Benton Harbor just before COVID-19 reached the U.S.
She was working a second job in the kitchen of a music venue. When live music halted and the shifts became sparse, she was laid off. After 25 years in restaurants, she’s not interested in going back.
Unemployment checks are covering her bills for now while she’s cleaning houses and selling jewelry on the side. It’s still a hustle, but she’s enjoying the flexibility of her schedule. Durocher is an avid fan of the Kalamazoo-based band Greensky Bluegrass and tries to catch as many shows as possible.
“I never had that option before,” she said. “I’d have to beg, switch [shifts] and work all these extra crap hours just to offset the fact that I wanted to go somewhere for a Friday and Saturday, where everybody else in the world can always do that.”
When her unemployment runs out, she’s interested in starting a new career in Michigan’s growing cannabis industry, she said.
“There’s a Greensky Bluegrass song called ‘Past my Prime’ and it’s exactly the theme of my restaurant industry career,” she said. “It’s over, and I’m fine with it.”
Rebuilding will take trust
Other lifers in the restaurant industry don’t know what they’d do without it. Ken Melcher has been a server for 18 years and at age 46, he doesn’t see himself starting over in a new career.
Instead, he’s waiting for his Detroit restaurant to reopen. He’s only worked three out of the last 13 months which he described as “devastating even with the unemployment supplement.”
“I would kind of love to jump ship and just have an office job,” he said. “But there’s no way I’m going to make what I make as a server, even in a post-pandemic economy.”
Restaurant owners are banking on the loyalty of their workers. At Jose’s Cantina, there will be a reward for those who return, owner Sandy Durm said.
Recently, Durm saw a local Burger King was offering signing bonuses for new hires. She liked the idea and is offering a $200 appreciation bonus for staff who return in addition to raising the minimum wage to $12.50.
Durm and her husband Joe own three restaurants in St. Ignace in Michigan’s U.P. Staffing has always been tough but they make it work, she said.
In the last year they had to temporarily close the coffee shop they run and she and her husband worked every day between the Mexican restaurant and retro diner they own.
Revenue at their restaurants were down between 30% and 40% in the last year. As restaurants in the area closed, the pressure weighed heavier on them and the wait lines grew longer, Durm said.
In Michigan, an estimated 3,000 restaurants closed during the pandemic, according to Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association.
Restaurant owners and workers agreed that the pandemic can be a catalyst for a culture change as the industry rebuilds.
The pandemic was an exit point for Michael Yowell. He’s been in the industry for 35 years working his way from salad bar attendant to fine dining manager with work on cruise ships and casinos in between.
His last job was in downtown Detroit, where he was laid off when restaurants shut down the first time. As a caretaker for his elderly parent, he decided it was time for retirement from restaurants. He now works from home in the tech industry.
“I’m not going to get sick or encounter any other undesirable consequences as a result of this line of work,” he said of his new job. “That is my bottom line in 2021, safety first.”
Yowell still has a lot of love for the restaurant industry and said the path forward will be rebuilding trust on all fronts. Both workers and customers need to feel safe if the industry is going to regain its foothold in society, he said.
“Restaurants provide a little bit of an escape,” he said. “You go to a place to invest your trust, to not have to worry about the cooking, to not have to worry about is it going to taste good or not. I think COVID-19 just really highlighted some of those vulnerable spots.”
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