Despite the easing of COVID restrictions, they are finding it hard to expand service.

As restaurants across the Twin Cities see a resurgence in business with the relaxation of state-mandated limits on dining capacity and hours of service, many are running up against staff shortages. Several reasons have been cited for the shortages, including the insecurity of restaurant work following state shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, career changes and state and federal unemployment benefits that in many cases pay laid-off workers more than they would be making if they had a job.

“We’re super understaffed,” said Brian Ingram, the owner of Hope Breakfast Bar at 1 S. Leech St., the Gnome Craft Pub at 498 Selby Ave. and the soon-to-reopen Woodfired Cantina in Keg and Case Market on West Seventh Street.

Ingram is dismayed by the few applications he has received for positions at Woodfired Cantina, which he expects to open in early May. “I don’t know why,” he said. Some restaurant workers have been laid off, rehired and laid off again. “People are tired of that,” Ingram surmised. “If they stay on unemployment, they know they have a check coming in. But we’ve raised wages, especially at the back-of-the-house. We’re paying dishwashers $15 to $18 an hour.”

restaurant staffing
Sous chef Aaron Cave, cook Jake McLahorn and server Cassie Wyzykowski kept pace with the lunch orders last weekend in the kitchen of the Gnome Craft Pub, 498 Selby Ave. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Minnesota restaurants have had to weather several state shutdowns over the past year. Limited to 25 percent and 50 percent capacity at times, they are now allowed to operate at 75 percent capacity with a maximum of 250 patrons. Those limits apply to indoor as well as outdoor dining. All customers must be seated, and parties are limited to six at tables and to four at counters or bars with a minimum of six feet between parties.

Justin Sutherland, a chef and partner at five local restaurants, including the Handsome Hog at Selby and Western avenues, speculated that many restaurant workers are tired of living paycheck to paycheck and fearful that they may be laid off again. “Rehiring has been difficult,” he said, though he was able to retain 60 percent of his staff at the Handsome Hog.

“We’re now giving bounties if new hirees stay a certain length of time and signing bonuses for referrals,” said Phil Roberts, cofounder of Parasole Restaurants, which operates Salut Bar Americain at 917 Grand Ave. Like some of his peers, he is finding kitchen positions to be the hardest to fill.

Alex Roberts, owner of Brasa at 777 Grand Ave. and two other locations, said having two rounds of layoffs did not bode well for retaining employees. “I’m finding staff, but the numbers aren’t that great,” he said. Both he and Sutherland have former employees who decided to get out of the hospitality industry and get trained for more secure jobs as computer programmers, electricians or plumbers.

 

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During the state shutdowns of indoor dining, the Green Mill at 557 S. Hamline Ave. and 18 other locations laid off everybody but the few employees needed to handle take-out and delivery, according to Paul Dzubnar, co-owner of the Green Mill’s parent company, High Top Hospitality. Since his restaurants returned to on-site dining and began rehiring workers, Dzubnar has received a dearth of applications. “A lot of people out there may have moved on to another career,” he said.

Minnesota’s unemployment rate has dropped from 9 percent a year ago to 4.2 percent today. That is lower than the national unemployment rate of 6 percent. Restaurants that have a fast-food or fast-casual format require fewer employees, and they have been less affected by staff shortages. While at least a dozen full-service restaurants have closed over the past year in the Villager area, a half-dozen fast-casual restaurants have opened.

“We’re now giving bounties if new hirees stay a certain length of time and signing bonuses for referrals,” said Phil Roberts, cofounder of Parasole Restaurants, which operates Salut Bar Americain at 917 Grand Ave. Like some of his peers, he is finding kitchen positions to be the hardest to fill.

‘We’re survivors’

“The industry is on its knees around the country,” said Donna Fahs, Parasole’s chief operating officer. “So many restaurants have closed and are not coming back.” According to her, Parasole closed three restaurants last year—Chino Latino in Minneapolis’ Uptown and Burger Jones in Minneapolis and Burnsville. “I’m anticipating that finding and training talent will be the number-one issue in our industry (for the foreseeable future),” she said.

Since lifestyle is especially important to younger workers, Parasole is making accommodations for new employees who want considerations like some weekends off. The company has found some success with cross training that enables staffers to fill in for co-workers in different positions when they are on vacation.

Fahs remains hopeful that the staffing situation will improve. “We’re survivors,” she said. “There will always be a place for food service. I don’t think the shortage of workers will last because there is a pipeline of young people turning 17 and 18.”

— Carolyn Walkup

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