After a year of plastic cups, distanced tables and takeout specials, restaurants are finally able to return to near-normal service just in time for summer tourist season. Customers are ready. Restaurant owners are ready. But servers and cooks are not. Though pandemic-related restrictions have largely been lifted, the National Restaurant Association says restaurant employment is down 1.8 million jobs in comparison to before the pandemic. That leaves a lot of workers still on the sidelines.
Restaurant owners across the Hudson Valley say they’ve had a hard time filling open positions. Some blame federally subsidized unemployment benefits. Others say former workers opted to make a career change or go back to school when the initial wave of layoffs hit at the beginning of the pandemic. In any case, many restaurant owners say they’ve been working more themselves to make up the difference and have had to reduce hours due to lack of staff.
Pandemic brought issues to a head
Jennifer Cruz opened Grainne and its counterpart next door, The Market at Grainne, in Uptown Kingston in November 2020 and faced a staff shortage ever since. Though she received numerous applicants at first who helped the restaurant function during the opening months, it’s been stagnant since. “As the owner, I am covering for people if we get too busy or if someone needs time out of the restaurant when they would normally work,” said Cruz. “My daughter has picked up a lot of work, but basically I am our primary server and kitchen float, dishwasher and janitor. Anything to keep it going.”
Cruz said the pandemic struck at a time when discussions over wages and benefits for restaurant workers were already in the air.
“There are changes coming in restaurants which the past year may have brought to a head,” said Cruz. “Changes in pay scale and benefits, which will impact menu prices [and] changes in restaurant culture and kitchen practices.”
Cruz cut Grainne’s hours to ease the burden for herself and her staff. Cruz said higher wages are a step, but not the only one. “I pay pretty well and still don’t get resumes so I think there is a bigger issue here,” she said.
Creating an incentive
Bia, a tasteful restaurant in Rhinebeck that puts its own modern twist on Irish dishes, decided to address compensation to retain workers. It did so by adding a 20 percent service charge to all bills and raised kitchen wages as well. “We re-opened in August of 2020 after being shut down for five months,” said Kyle Kelley, Bia’s owner, manager and beverage director. “One of the main things on my mind during that time was ‘How do we reopen safely and also make sure that everyone working for us has a real financial incentive to be here?’”
Like other eateries, Bia has limited its hours based on staff availability and flow of business.
“Lack of staffing and talent forces us to still limit our seating and reservations to make sure each guest has a great experience,” said Kelley. “It should be seamless, the customer should never know there are problems or issues with staffing. So we are doing what we can, but it is really taking the wind out of our sails.”
Kelley said Bia’s staff is small, so for both emotional and financial reasons, they don’t overwork employees. He said owners and salary-paid managers have taken on the extra work to fill the gaps.
Bia is open Thursday to Sunday serving dinner from 5-9 p.m. After getting through the winter months with a small staff, management is anticipating the heat bringing in more people. Kelly said they’ve dedicated a lot of time and hard work to get new hires, but haven’t been very successful.
Creekside Bar and Bistro in Rosendale opened in November 2019. Chef Juan Galvin, husband of owner Reshma Ramoutar, explained that at one point during the shutdown, it was just the two of them working 10-hour days, six days a week. When indoor dining returned, Galvin said some staff came back, but he noticed people weren’t interested in applying. “We’re all suffering at this point,” he said. “I hardly get to see my kid during the week because of what’s going on. Once I can get at least one more staff [member], it’ll be easier for me to at least be there.”
Creekside has stopped serving lunch from Monday to Thursday and still doesn’t serve at full capacity due to lack of staff. Its current employees almost all work full-time. Galvin and Ramoutar say they work the most to make sure their employees are content. “We want to make sure that our staff is happy with everything and we also don’t want to overwork them,” said Galvin. “It’s right for us to do that for them because of what’s happened.”
Galvin mentioned he pays more than minimum wage and with his 20 years of experience in the business, he understands how difficult restaurant work is. He also said he recognizes why people are on unemployment, but that it will be hard to compete with the amount of money people are used to when the subsidized benefits end.
“With COVID and the extra money from unemployment, plus what unemployment is [and] what people claim for regular unemployment, it’s going to be harder for people to come back to work because now people are going to be expecting ‘x’ amount of dollars an hour to kind of compete with what unemployment is,” said Galvin.
He also noticed that during COVID, many restaurant workers have gone back to school or found different careers.
How much would you pay for a cheeseburger?
McGillicuddy’s is a late-night restaurant and tap house that serves as a staple for New Paltz locals. As with most other restaurants we looked at, it is operating with modified hours and a reduced menu, and staff have been hard to come by.
“The people I have are all working more,” said owner Brian Keenan. “The restaurant business is tough. We’ve had a lot of part-time people, and now I have less people and they’re all working full time.”
Keenan has started paying his employees higher wages and in doing so, has had to find a balance for his business. Keenan said, “I can only raise the price of a cheeseburger so much where people will either stop coming out or will come out less.”
Keenan thinks unemployment is giving some people an incentive not to come back to work, although he mentioned he isn’t against it and believes it helped many people. But he doesn’t think this is the only reason. Like Galvin, he thinks the pandemic led to many former restaurant workers to consider doing something else with their lives. “So many restaurants were closed for a while,” he said. “I think a lot of restaurant people needed to explore other options for their careers and started working in other fields because we were hit the hardest.”
Keenan sees a silver lining in the pressures created by the employment shortage.
“As much as it [has] hurt the restaurant business, I think, at least for me, it’s helped in a way that I’ve really had to rethink my whole business model and become much more aware of where I can cut costs where I need to drive sales,” he said. “The bottom line in our business is always ‘control costs and drive sales.’”