Even as patrons begin returning to restaurants, thanks to loosening COVID-19 restrictions and readily available vaccinations, many have had to keep their own self-imposed restrictions in place because they don’t have enough staff to cook and serve their customers.
“There’s definitely been a lot of people asking when we’re bringing breakfast back,” said Cindy Ebert, manager of the Brass Rail restaurant in Allentown. “The answer is we can’t even staff lunch and dinner.”
Ebert said the restaurant has been operating on a restricted schedule. It’s now only open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. They eliminated their popular breakfast and late night bar hours and she doesn’t know when they’ll be able to bring either back because they don’t have the staff to cover the shifts even if the demand is there.
It’s a similar story at the two Trivet restaurants owned by Gus Panagopoulos.
The Allentown Trivet was open 24-hours a day before COVID-19, but he has had to keep the restaurant at its 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. pandemic hours because he doesn’t have the staff.
“It’s frustrating because a lot of our customers who have to start work at 6 a.m. no longer have the luxury of getting breakfast at 4:30 a.m. or 5 a.m.,” he said.
Those restaurants are hardly alone.
“I think it’s the same for every restaurant in the country,” said Jim Fris, CEO of the PJWhelihans Group, which runs the P.J. Whelihan’s restaurants in the region. “Everybody has the same problems finding staff.”
It’s frustrating for restaurants who are finding it hard to convince staff to come back to work even as those jobs are returning. The main problem, they say, is the extension of federal and state unemployment benefits, which, in many cases, removes the incentive to go back to work.
But it’s more complicated than that.
Many restaurant workers are young mothers. With some schools still not back to full in-person classes, they would have to pay for childcare during the hours they work, which may be too expensive to justify adding shifts.
“Obviously some people have just left the industry,” Fris said.
Many former PJ’s staffers have told him they went onto manufacturing jobs, or were studying to be licensed practical nurses.
Fear has also driven many restaurant workers out of the industry, Fris said. They decided it was safer to work in a different industry where they didn’t have to interact with the public. With a smaller pool of workers to hire from, completion for staff has become intense.
“We’re fighting each other for the same staff. It’s been very difficult,” he said.
It’s been even harder to find back-of-restaurant workers, such line cooks who don’t benefit from tips. That has wages going up dramatically, and restaurants using special incentives, like sign-on bonuses to attract staff.
Ebert saw a McDonald’s in Florida offering $50 for people to just show up for an interview.
The lack of available workers is also impacting existing staff and management.
“We’re trying our best, but we’re short staffed. Normally I’d have six servers and now I have four,” said Panagopulos. “I’ve had to hold people at the door. They get upset but I tell them they’ll just be waiting at the table anyway.”
Ebert and the owners of the Brass Rail have had to roll up their sleeves and do some of the work themselves, with third-generation owner Mark Sorentino even working the grill slinging cheesesteaks. It’s been on everyone – customers who are waiting longer to be served and staff who are working harder than ever – and it’s not a good place to be in, she said.
“If we lose one more person I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said. “Every restaurant we know is in that position