Staff shortages and pandemic fatigue wreak havoc in Vermont restaurants

Chef and co-owner Cara Tobin stands in the Honey Road restaurant, which has not offered meals indoors since the pandemic began in March 2020. Photo by Lana Cohen / VTDigger

The interior of Honey Road, an upscale Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Burlington, feels more like a warehouse than a place to sit down to enjoy homemade pitas or an elaborate lamb dish.

Tables covered with take-out boxes are pushed up against the walls, and the boxes are stacked several feet high. The well-appointed interior space, with high pewter ceilings, a brick wall, and an eclectic combination of chandeliers, was primarily used as a staging area for alfresco dining and pandemic-friendly take-out meals Honey Road has has been running for the past 18 months, according to Cara Tobin, chef and co-owner of the restaurant.

Now, as the pandemic continues, Honey Road has temporarily closed its doors to customers. “We are closed to give our staff a well-deserved break,” read a printer-paper poster stuck to the front door of the restaurant at the corner of Church and Main streets.

Restaurants around Vermont are taking extended breaks, cutting hours and even closing permanently due to pandemic fatigue and understaffing.

Some companies are making changes in an effort to attract employees and support those working in a difficult industry, from increasing wages to increasing benefits and flexibility. But that didn’t immediately solve what business leaders say is the fundamental problem – that there are simply not enough restaurant workers in the state to fill all the open positions.

“Overall, there aren’t the number of humans we need,” said Catherine Davis, president of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce.

This is not a new situation. There has always been a shallow labor pool in the state’s restaurant industry, according to Amy Spear, vice president of tourism for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

There are various theories as to why the workforce is so limited: housing shortage in the state, high cost of living, health issues related to working in public roles, and federal unemployment benefits, to name a few. name a few.

But it results in understaffed businesses, overworked employees and business closures.

Although Honey Road plans to reopen on October 7, the Old Brick Store in Charlotte is closing until it can find enough staff to fill eight recently vacant positions. And Butch and Babes, an American diner in Burlington’s Old North End, said goodbye for good earlier this month after a nearly seven-year run.

Barkeaters in Shelburne, Smokey’s Low n ‘Slow in South Burlington and The Scale in Williston have also chosen the path of indefinite closure.

Regional chain Skinny Pancake has cut its hours sharply due to understaffing at six of the seven restaurants. Only his Montpellier crêperie respects the regular hours.

Davis said staff shortages are common at this time of year, when school-aged employees or people who work in schools for most of the year quit their summer jobs and return to work. class. However, she said, this year’s issues – restaurant closures, reduced hours or other cutbacks in services – suggest a more extreme situation.

According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics data, there were about 37,000 workers in Vermont’s leisure and hospitality industries before the pandemic, in July 2019. In the following July, that number fell to about 22,000. In July, the BLS recorded about 31 000 people working in leisure and hospitality, including restaurants.

Davis said housing is the biggest barrier to workforce growth. “We have this urgent need for manpower, but we have this severe housing shortage,” she said. “Even if we were to bring more people to the state, we don’t have places for them to live. It really is a chicken-and-egg situation.

According to Davis, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed statewide by developing more housing and encouraging more workers to come to Vermont.

“There is just a mismatch between the number of employees needed and the number of employees we have,” Davis said.

Employers who need workers are now trying a variety of ways to incentivize them, from increasing wages to adding benefits.

Skinny Pancake founder and CEO Benjy Adler, who saw many of the staff leave in mid-August with the schools opening, said he strives to set his company apart by offering better salaries and benefits, continuing to gain staff input and creating a compassionate and nurturing environment. environment.

The minimum wage at Skinny Pancake is $ 15 an hour, according to Adler, who said most people make between $ 15 and $ 20 and many make more than that. He also cited a variety of benefits: matching health care, 401k, an agricultural share, a short-term loan program, and a partnership with Invest Employee Assistance Program, a non-profit organization that offers free counseling. .

Adler said he hopes some of these incentives will help bring staff to Skinny Pancake and allow them to return to full-time operations. But he also anticipates a spike in interest in employment once a federal unemployment contribution ends on September 4, a benefit he has very clearly supported. “We are seeing an increase in the number of applicants this week and we expect that to continue to grow,” he said last week. “We hope to return to full operation by mid-September.”

For now, Adler has said he doesn’t want to ask his current staff for more. “They are all tired and overworked and have done an exceptional job, so we base our hours of operation on their capacity,” he said.

A kitchen supervisor who worked for Skinny Pancake for about three months, Rafaella Hill-Mosher, said that upon their arrival they noticed a heavy load for staff to keep up without a full team and to deal with policies in rapid evolution.

“We had to rush practice and there was usually a lot of pressure,” said Hill-Mosher.

“Skinny Pancake is a great place to work,” they said. Hill-Mosher added that it provides a fun environment and provides a living wage, but in general the industry is tough because the work is hard and the money is not great.

“Skinny Pancake has a good balance between salary and responsibility,” they said, “but salary is a challenge all over the restaurant industry. A lot of restaurants focus on being a business and have to. put a lot of pressure on the staff but can’t pay a lot.

Honey Road is on the same path as Skinny Pancake, trying to find a way to attract enough workers, support its staff, and run a successful business.

Tobin, the co-owner, said that recently her employee burnout level had become so evident that taking a break seemed like the right thing to do.

“I could see it on everyone’s faces, that the mental toll of the last 18 months has really caught up with everyone,” she said.

But Tobin herself doesn’t take much free time. The restaurant is, once again, shifting gears and creating a new business plan. During the pandemic, it offered take-out, outdoor dining, and retailed, selling olive oil, spices, and more. Now he’s creating a new hybrid model, with plans to return to indoor dining and keep a limited take-out menu.

“We basically have to reopen the restaurant like it’s the first time,” Tobin said. “I mean we have to find the plates because I don’t even know where they are.”

The restaurant must also hire enough staff to meet the October 7 reopening date. “Chain kitchens, waiters, food runners, hosts, we need almost everyone,” she said. “And there aren’t a lot of people looking for these jobs, it’s really tough.”

Tobin also hopes to figure out how to offer more to his employees. In the past, she paid hourly workers at least $ 15.

“We’re sort of spending the next month finding a solution to make it sustainable as a business so that we can either pay our staff more or make them earn more,” Tobin said.

“How can we pay more, how can we offer something to help offset the costs? She asked out loud. “Because, damn, I know what it’s like to live here, and it’s hard.”

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