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This page offers all of Delaware Public Media's ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak and how it is affecting the First State. Check here regularly for the latest new and information.

Post-pandemic staffing challenges stall restaurant rebound

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Delaware Public Media
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With COVID restrictions largely eliminated, vaccinations creeping up and the summer season here, you’d think restaurants hammered by the pandemic would be poised for a big rebound.

But Contributor Eileen Dallabrida reports many are struggling to ramp up.  That's because, while they have customers again, many don’t have the staff to serve them.

With COVID restrictions on restaurants easing, patrons are returning to their favorite dining destinations, eager to enjoy a meal out.

Meanwhile, restaurateurs are hungry for labor, struggling to find enough workers to prepare the food, cook it, serve it to patrons, clear the tables, and wash the dishes. Supplies are harder to come by, with fewer workers to drive and unload trucks.

To fill the gap, Seasons, a regional casual Italian concept, offered $200 signing bonuses for new employees. Grotto Pizza, which had more than 200 job openings statewide, came up with a plan to shuttle workers between locations to maximize staff. In Millsboro, the Peninsula Golf and Country Club stepped up its hiring efforts with five job fairs instead of the usual three. The goal was 100 seasonal workers; the job fairs yielded a scant 40 hires.

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Credit Delaware Public Media
Grotto Pizza turned to shuttling workers between locations to maximize staff as they seek to fill open positions

Carlie Carey, owner of One Coastal on Fenwick Island, sent out a call for help on Instagram, offering cash and dinner to anyone willing to come in for a shift washing dishes.

“We were Band-Aiding it,” she says. “Who can stay late? Who can come in for a shift?”

Nationwide, the COVID pandemic threw more than 3 million restaurant workers out of a job, according to the National Restaurant Association. Hiring has picked up but the NRA says eating and drinking establishments are still 1.5 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels.

Many business owners believe government has made it more lucrative to not work, with the federal government offering an additional $300 a week in benefits on top of $400 a week in Delaware state benefits. Carey understands the money is a powerful enticement, especially for people who can stay home with their families and avoid the expense and hassle of childcare.

“When you are benefiting people to do nothing, that might work for them,” she says.

Still, it’s a complex issue. In Sussex County, the restaurant ranks have been thinned by workers who switched to construction and landscaping jobs during a home building boomlet.

“When people were forced to make a choice as to where they were going in life, some of them decided to leave the restaurant industry,” Carey says. “It makes me sad because so many of us work hard to make our restaurants magical places to work.”

Cruz Ramos has been waiting tables for 10 years. He has a degree in kinesiology, the study of body movement. He doesn’t need his diploma to tell him that carrying trays and spending hours on his feet is hard on his back. “This line of work is definitely rough on the body,” he says.

"When people were forced to make a choice as to where they were going in life, some of them decided to leave the restaurant industry." - One Coastal Owner Carlie Carey

He works at Kid Shelleen’s in Wilmington. The money is good and he enjoys the adrenalin rush of delivering great food and service. It used to hurt his feelings when customers were rude but he learned to roll with it years ago. He thinks of the chef and storyteller Anthony Bourdain, who famously said: “If anything is good for pounding humility into you permanently, it's the restaurant business.”

At 30, Ramos is ready for a change. He is studying investing during the day, a pursuit he began in his downtime during the pandemic. Eventually, he hopes to invest full time. He looks forward to having nights and weekends off when he can spend more time with his girlfriend.

“This is probably the best place I have ever worked but it’s not a career,” he says.

With not enough hands to do the work, many restaurant owners have shortened hours, which makes it more difficult to bounce back from the pandemic. A survey by Alignable, a small business referral network, reported that 49% of restaurateurs had a hard time paying rent in May, up from 14% from April.

“This is sad news for the restaurant industry, which… appeared to be one of the frontrunners in the recovery, slowly rebounding from COVID issues,” the report says. “However, these rent statistics represent a setback for restaurants, many of which spent the last 14 months struggling just to stay afloat.”

Starting June 12, Delaware residents receiving unemployment benefits must register on the state's job board and report work searches. Karen Stauffer, senior director of communication and strategy for the Delaware Restaurant Association, is hopeful that job seekers with restaurant and hospitality experience will be linked with businesses parched for labor.

"While it's exciting to see busy Delaware restaurants and bars again, what's going on behind the scenes is a critical labor shortage that's resulting in businesses cutting back on hours or not being able to fully seat their dining rooms,” she says. “We're seeing restaurants posts pleas on social media and signs on their front doors asking guests and tourists to be kind and have patience with their already stretched-thin staff.”

"We're seeing restaurants posts pleas on social media and signs on their front doors asking guests and tourists to be kind and have patience with their already stretched-thin staff." - Delaware Restaurant Association's Karen Stauffer

In New Castle County, the labor shortage forced Bellefonte Café to close its doors for the month of May. Owners Dave and Donna Farrar explained their dilemma to patrons in a May 2 post on their Facebook page. “The recent increase in business has been a boon but it also has come with challenges. Our existing staff is not sufficient to meet the mission and they are exhausted. We have decided to close until we can rectify the staffing situation.”

Bellefonte bounced back, reopening the first week in June, welcoming customers with live music and such culinary standbys as black bean soup and Cubano sandwiches.

In the close-knit beach community, small business owners have been helping each other through a rough patch. Samantha Hall, owner of Grab and Go Taco in Fenwick, connected Carey with three of her employees who wanted to earn extra money.

“She knew this precarious position we were in, and she shared her people with us,” she says.

The three employees did a “stellar job” as a stop gap. But Hall was only able to spare them until Memorial Day.

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Restaurants like One Coastal have sought to fill shifts online as they try to ramp up post-pandemic.

One Coastal adjusted by shifting its hours. The 51-seat farm-to-table restaurant was operating on a reduced schedule, 5-9:30 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, serving such specialties as sea bass with locally grown sweet potatoes and carrots and the Coastal Crush, a vodka cocktail infused with basil Carey grows on the family farm.

She was working on filling the last few openings when the restaurant suffered another setback. Two staffers got into a fight, forcing the operation to close and regroup. Carey expects to reopen soon to catch the summer wave of vacationers.

She’s optimistic willing hands will come on deck as the economy continues to recover from the pandemic.

“After all that we have been through, I will not let this last hurdle be the nail in my coffin,” she says. “We hope to have good news soon, with new hires and be back up and running like the well-oiled machine we usually are.”