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‘It’s A Reckoning’: Restaurateurs Grapple With Staff Shortages As Customers Return

 Tom Schmidt is opening a fifth Salt + Smoke location at Ballpark Village in downtown St. Louis.
Salt + Smoke
Tom Schmidt is opening a fifth Salt + Smoke location at Ballpark Village in downtown St. Louis.

After months of collective longing for a return to restaurant dining, many people are eagerly heading back to the establishments they’ve been missing. But all across the industry, those businesses are now struggling to staff up for the renewed demand.

In just 11 days, St. Louis-area barbecue juggernaut Salt + Smoke is set to open a fifth location downtown in Ballpark Village. But hiring for the new spot has been remarkably slow going, owner Tom Schmidt told St. Louis on the Air on Thursday.

“We need about 100 employees for that location,” Schmidt said, “and we plan to open it May 17. And right now we have about 22 hired.”

While Schmidt is still confident about opening on that target date given the ability to draw on personnel connected to the four other Salt + Smoke locations, he acknowledged it’s an enormous gap. And the problem is one facing smaller employers in the local food scene, too.

“I don't think there’s anybody that doesn't have a ‘help wanted’ sign hanging out of their restaurant right now,” George Mahe, the dining editor for St. Louis Magazine, told host Sarah Fenske. “It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it. I mean, I’ve been in this industry a long time. … It’s totally unprecedented.”

Mahe, quoting a chef he recently spoke with, called it a reckoning.

“Everyone knows the problem — there are just simply no employees,” he said. “They aren’t answering the ads, they're not coming in through traditional channels. And, you know, the floodgates have opened — the customers are finally back, [and] restaurateurs are so excited to see them back. But there’s nobody to cook for them, wait on them or clean up after them.”

The missing supply of workers to meet the booming demand comes in the context of new guidance and eased COVID-19 restrictions in the St. Louis region for food and drink establishments. Restaurants no longer have to adhere to a 50% capacity cap and a midnight curfew, so long as they continue with six-foot social distancing practices.

Restaurants Are Seeing More Customers Again — But Are In Desperate Need Of Staff
Listen as host Sarah Fenske talks with industry insiders George Mahe and Tom Schmidt, and with callers, about the factors at play and various ideas for addressing the worker shortage.

But there are other reasons for the issue that go beyond factors directly related to the pandemic, Schmidt said.

“[There’s] the perception that our industry isn’t a long-term career path, that it’s just a temporary thing, which we work really hard to change that perception,” the restaurateur said. “Obviously, there’s been a lot of stalled immigration at the border that’s caused a huge issue as well. And then, really, I think the biggest issue that we don’t really talk about is 16- to 22-year-olds that used to comprise so much of our workforce.

“Now, being a high school and college student is a full-time job. You have to be on three extracurriculars, you’re on three club sports to make the high school team, you have to take 15 prep courses for your ACT. And that capacity to kind of fill in with another job is just not a reality.”

Mahe added that he thinks there’s something to the theory that increases in unemployment benefits are a factor.

“If you do the math on that, it’s $600-plus a week, that’s — at 40 hours a week, that’s $15 an hour,” he said. “So restaurant operators, or any employer, has to consider that when trying to find employees. And $15 has become the base amount, which is a whole lot higher, 20% higher probably, than a lot of restaurants have been paying. And even then, I talked to a guy that said he's paying $15 to $20 an hour, and he still can't find people — he can't get people to even show up for an interview, throwing that kind of money out ahead of time.

“And he said, you know, ‘What is a living wage anyway?’ That's a really good point: What’s it going to take? … Like I said, it's a reckoning, and it's going to translate, no matter what happens, it’s going to come out in menu price increases, and that's just going to be a fact of life.”

But Schmidt said that the drop in service workers came before the onslaught of the pandemic and unemployment benefits.

“I don't know a restaurant in 2019 that wasn't also kind of regularly stating, ‘It’s just so hard to find people,’” he said.

The on-air discussion also touched on the inherent difficulties of restaurant work. But Schmidt noted that there are things employers can do to make the challenges of the job worth it.

“When Haley [Riley] and I made the decision to grow from one restaurant to the second restaurant,” he offered as one example, “that really for us was driven by that providing the opportunity for us to expand our benefits.”

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The conversation also included the perspectives of listeners who called into the show, including Rob, a service industry worker, who said he worked 50 hours a week prior to the pandemic and made good money — something that still isn’t possible again yet.

“In the restaurant industry, there's only so much money that can be spent,” Rob said. “And the consumer, a lot of folks also aren't making as much money. They’re making a decision to buy groceries. So it is kind of a two-way street. … I'm sympathetic to what everyone's going through. We're all having a rough go of it. And we just want this to be over with.”

Schmidt said Rob’s comment aligns with what it was like for Salt + Smoke’s team through much of the winter.

“But now since March, if weather's decent,” he added, “we're regularly beating 2019 numbers at our stores ... I have nephews that are bus people that are making on average $48 an hour week after week after week. I mean, the wages are really good and in our experience, the demand from guests is really through the roof right now, which is, you know, coupling that with a labor shortage.

“That has created a lot more challenges, but for the people that are working, they're making so much more money because they're scooping up all of that extra business with fewer servers to split it among.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.
Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.