Restaurants struggle with short staffing as more people return to dining



The restaurant industry is struggling to find staff as business is up with the spread of vaccines and return of warmer weather.

The National Restaurant Association projected a 10.2% increase in sales this year for the industry in its 2021 state of the industry report, following a 19.2% drop in sales in 2020.

Several local businesses have help wanted signs on their doors or hiring notices on their websites, and some are so short staffed they have had to shorten their hours.

That’s true at Jim’s Donut Shop in Vandalia. Beginning April 23, the shop will no longer be 24 hours and will instead open at 5 a.m. and close at 9 p.m.

“I’ve never seen it like this, and I’ve been here 14 years,” manager Cassie Campbell said. “Before we had enough people where we all pitch in and work extra hours and stuff. Somebody would work third (shift) or a double, and now there’s not enough people to do that. You can only work so many days, so now we’re going to shut down for eight hours at night until I can get here in the morning.”

The hours will remain adjusted until the donut shop can fill its third shift position. “Who knows how long that’ll be,” she said. “I’ve been trying to hire for that shift since the holidays.”

Just down the street from Jim’s, Bunkers Sports Bar and Grille had to close its doors for two days this week due to low staffing.

The same is true for El Meson in Dayton, a restaurant serving Central and South American dishes.

“We’re only open four days right now and we really can’t see us opening anymore until we feel safe and confident that we have the amount of staff to man the tables,” owner Bill Castro said.

The restaurant is normally open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. But its lunch crowd dwindled due to people working from home, leaving Castro no choice but to cut lunch hours and only serve dinner between 4 and 9 p.m. However, the restaurant has a steady flow of customers.

Castro, who also is a member of the Dayton Daily News Community Advisory Board, said he is extremely appreciative of the workers he has now but needs more staff for El Meson’s offsite catering for banquets, weddings and parties as that business continues to grow.

“We have people eating indoors, people celebrating birthdays for the last two years and having people sit in our restaurant for three and a half to four hours because they were starved so much of community interaction,” he said. “I have maybe 15 employees. I could use 30 to 40. I have no staff for offsite catering.”

Some restaurants have offered incentives to join their teams. Castro recently started offering a $250 sign-on bonus after 90 days for new employees.

He has people applying but then many don’t show up for interviews, which he believes is due to unemployment checks that have been extended out to September.

“I have people that I’ve offered to come back, and they almost say, ‘I’m not really interested until the money that I’m getting runs out,’” he said.

Policy Matters Ohio, a progressive think tank, said in a statement that the unemployment benefits “help hundreds of thousands of Ohioans stay afloat, but it’s not nearly enough,” arguing that Congress has extended unemployment benefits for much longer in previous recessions. The organization also argues for significant hikes to minimum wages for workers like those in the restaurant industry.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, defended enhanced unemployment benefits in a letter to President Biden about the importance of unemployment and other reoccurring payments.

“Data shows that direct payments and enhanced unemployment insurance are among the most effective forms of relief available,” Brown’s letter says. “Not only do these payments help keep families out of poverty, but they act as economic stimulus by increasing spending and supporting jobs.”

Prior to the pandemic, Jim’s and El Meson hadn’t experienced staffing challenges. But for Lee’s Famous Recipe, owner Scott Griffith said it’s not a new challenge for his business, but unemployment is playing a factor in his ability to staff his restaurants.

“I don’t want to look down on people that apply. You don’t know the story of people who collect unemployment, but when I look at our top performance people who have stuck it out all through this, it’s just so unfair and it’s just really tough right now,” Griffith said.

Griffith owns seven Lee’s locations throughout the Miami Valley and said the quick service industry is a first job for many people. The industry has “built in turnover” because people move on to other jobs and careers.

Following a two-month plummet in sales due to the pandemic, Lee’s saw more people coming to the drive-thru and curbside pick-up.

“We had a big demand in sales and for help on top of an already short supply,” Griffith said. “Three of the seven locations are severely understaffed.”

Although the staffing challenges have forced him to close two of his dining rooms again, he believes there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

“Schools are going to be out soon, and we’re planning to see a few more people available for work when school lets out. It should help us meet the rising demand in sales. The second benchmark we’re looking at is in September, when the unemployment extension runs out,” he said.

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