The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 13, 2020 1:00 am

Worker shortage hits eateries

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

Shigs In Pit opened a local restaurant in 2012 on Fairfield Avenue and added a second five years later on Maplecrest Road.

Sometime soon, despite the coronavirus pandemic, a third location will open at 8506 Illinois Road. If recruiting goes well, it will be staffed with about 100 people – mostly part time.

“We're trying to make sure everybody's comfortable coming in for interviews and safe in that process,” said Josh Volz, director of marketing and design for Shigs In Pit and Mad Anthony Brewing Co.

Hiring for the new location began in late August. About a week into the process, Volz called it more difficult than what he recalls for Maplecrest in 2017.

Tasks such as seating guests, taking orders and cooking in a restaurant kitchen can be tough to accomplish while also trying to social distance to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Some restaurants and other service sector businesses nationally have found workers shying away, including key demographics – including teenagers, at the urging of their parents, and the elderly – based on health and safety concerns. And the temporary enhanced unemployment checks kept others on the sidelines for months, in some cases earning more than when they worked.

“This is the most dramatic shift that's happened in the modern history of food service” said Aaron Allen, chief strategist at restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates. “It's the first time people have left the industry and decided not to come back.”

As of mid-July, only about half of the 6.1 million food-service jobs that the U.S. lost in March and April had returned, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Volz remains optimistic about the new Shigs In Pit location, knowing downsizing in other sectors has some people still in the market for jobs. Early this month, Volz said he expected the new location would have some soft openings and once hiring picked up would announce an official grand opening.

Early in the pandemic, many restaurant chains pared menus, reduced store hours and cut staff as most states implemented stay-at-home orders.

While many traditional restaurants continue to struggle as consumers avoid dining rooms, fast-food chains and those with carryout have reported steady improvement this summer as socially distancing consumers opt for drive-thrus. Delivery-focused companies like Papa John's International Inc. and Domino's Pizza Inc. have thrived.

McDonald's Corp. said in June that it planned to hire 260,000 during the summer. Subway, Taco Bell, Dunkin' Brands Group Inc., Papa John's and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. were also looking to expand payrolls on a smaller scale. But the lack of workers was complicating efforts.

Michael Lippert, president of GPS Hospitality LLC, which operates almost 500 Burger King, Popeyes and Pizza Hut locations, said hiring has been particularly tough because fewer teens are applying. This has pushed up wages and led the company to expand overtime, previously reserved for management, to hourly workers.

While keeping restaurants fully staffed has always been difficult, “the uncertainty around COVID has made this even more of a challenge,” said Greg Flynn,  founder and chief executive officer of the Flynn Restaurant Group, which operates Taco Bell, Arby's and Applebee's locations.

Kevin Cook, kitchen manager at Don Hall's Gas House, said the enhanced unemployment checks likely reduced the labor pool for restaurants – at least temporarily.

Cook says it would be difficult for most people to opt for work if they could make more on unemployment when the extra benefit due to COVID-19 was $600 weekly.

“And I personally can't blame them,” he said.

After that benefit expired in late July, Cook said interest picked up for restaurant jobs.

“There was a little bit of a surge, and it's still happening a little right now of people looking for work, now that it's (the extra $600) gone away,” he said.

On the business side, Cook said it had still been a bit slow in some recent weeks – until more workers began to return to their offices downtown, where Don Hall's Gas House is located.

The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner.

“It's starting to rebound,” Cook said. 

During the early stage of the pandemic when Indiana was under a stay-at-home order, the Gas House remained open. It offered carryout with a limited menu and also participated in a Water Street Mercantile, setting up a market and selling restaurant goods as a grocery store would.

Even outside a pandemic, hiring for the restaurant business can be a challenge, Cook said. The industry is “notorious for turnover,” offering many entry-level jobs for demographics that include teens and grandparents.

Cook said he's been in the restaurant business 27 years and knows someone will be late, decide not to come to work for various reasons or be sick.

“I'm always in hiring mode,” Cook said. “I would like to hire the best person at any given time.” 

The strategy is similar for Shigs in Pit and Mad Anthony. The brewery has locations in Auburn, Angola and Warsaw, along with Fort Wayne. There's always a need for cooks, Volz said, but the brewery in particular has a regular crew that keeps the business running smoothly.

Still, Volz said, “we always keep our ear out for a great addition to staff.”

Bloomberg News (TNS) contributed to this story.

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