Story Produced by the Concord Monitor, a Member of
CONCORD, NH – On every table at the Red Arrow Diner, an advertisement on the plastic napkin holder tells a larger story about the foodservice industry: “Refer a cook and receive $100.”
The days of shuttered doors and empty restaurants that gave way to pandemic precautions of outdoor dining or takeout-only are merely a memory. But as customers race back out to eat, one problem persists: There is not enough staff to serve them. Some restaurants have cut back hours or decided to close certain days of the week because they can’t keep pace with demand.
“Everyone has stuck around for us, and they all came back when it was over,” said Jane Valliere, owner of Hermanos Cocina Mexicana in downtown Concord. “Now I unfortunately can’t provide meals to them because I do not have enough employees to do it.”
Due to the shortage of workers, Hermanos is closed on Sundays and Mondays until more staff are hired and trained. Melissa Thompson, the general manager at Hermanos, counted the staff scheduled to work last week.
She counted 33. In March 2020, she would have had 52.
Line cooks are the biggest challenge. A year ago, the restaurant had 10 line cooks; now they are left with five.
But when Valliere and Thompson look to hire new staff, they are at a loss.
When Hermanos does receive a response to their help-wanted advertisements, most don’t return their phone calls. Or they schedule an interview and no one shows up. The restaurant has even hired new employees who skip out on their first shift.
“…Workers, they don’t show up, they don’t even bother to show up to an interview they’ve scheduled. They don’t have to, because there are a lot of jobs out there,” Valliere said.
Hermanos is not alone.
Normally, when Kina Gillson, manager at Dos Amigos Burritos on Main Street, goes to hire a new employee, she has a stack of applications to choose from. Now, that pile is thin.
“Our applications have been really slim,” she said. “I will get one a day, if I am lucky.”
With record sales, Gillson would love to hire more hands so her current employees aren’t overstretched.
“It’s upsetting for myself because I almost feel like I am letting them down by not being able to hire more people,” she said. “I want the employees to be happy. It is hard to see them overwhelmed.”
But no matter the number of pay raises, advertisements posted or mere pleas to come work, restaurants are struggling to hire new staff.
“It is a mystery,” Valliere said. “Where did all those people go?”
The $100 pledge is Red Arrow’s latest incentive to bring people through the door. After pleading to employees to refer friends and family, they are now turning to customers for help. When someone recommends a cook that stays for 90 days, they receive the cash reward.
Across the industry, restaurants have raised their wages to stay competitive and hopefully lure a new hire.
Signs like Brookside Pizza’s plastic “now hiring” outside their Concord location are becoming industry staples.
But now when Brookside goes to hire a new employee, the starting wage is $14 an hour, plus tips. Pre-pandemic, Sean Colarusso, the president of the Concord location, could have made the same hire offering $9 per hour.
“It’s a pretty big jump for us from $9 to $14. Plus adding in all the overtime, because I would rather pay overtime and be open than be closed, that’s a further drain on our finances,” he said.
Overtime pay is time and a half, meaning employees earn $21 an hour.
“Some weeks I have employees working 15 to 20 hours of overtime,” he said. “Right now I have most of my staff do two to eight hours of overtime if everybody is here.”
At Constantly Pizza, which has two Concord locations – one downtown and one in Penacook – all employees saw a raise of $1 to $2 in their hourly wages as well. To keep up with the customer demand, many employees also work overtime hours.
While the waitstaff are making more through tips, the back-of-house workers in the kitchen are often making significantly less.
“The servers, they can average anywhere from $20-$30 an hour with their tips,” said David McClellan, manager at Red Arrow’s Concord location. “The cooks are right around $15-$18 an hour.”
Red Arrow increased its pay across the board. Cooks are earning an extra $3 an hour. Same with dishwashers, who now make $15 instead of $12, McClellan said.
But in order to maintain these increased wages, the diner has had to increase the prices on their menus.
“The margin for a restaurant business is very small,” said Amanda Wihby, chief operations officer and co-owner of Red Arrow. “The price of a cheeseburger is going to have to go up because you have to keep your doors open.”
For 37 years, Hermanos has served lunch and dinner each day, seven days a week. Now, a green and blue sign taped to the door shows their new hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 3 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.
Five dinner and two lunch services are all the restaurant can manage.
After one line cook quit, Thompson and other employees were clocking in 60-hour work weeks. The best solution was to close Sunday and Monday, the first time the restaurant has done so.
A permanent shift in hours is also the case at Red Arrow, where their branded 24-hour diner is no longer open around the clock at three of its four locations. Before the schedule change, the diner had remained open all day for so long, that when they went to close, management couldn’t even find the keys to lock the door, Wihby said.
Now the Concord location is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday. On Friday and Saturday, hours are extended until midnight. But the days of 3 a.m. pancakes and home fries are only a reality at the original Manchester location.
Even then, a limited staff makes that questionable.
“Due to an unexpected staffing challenge, our Manchester location will be closed overnight,” they posted on Facebook on July 7.
At Brookside Pizza, Facebook posts tell the tale of similar struggles.
“Our sincerest apologies. Due to staffing issues we will only be open 11-2 today,” read a June 27 message.
Some days, the short staff means closing early or opening late. Other days, the ovens are fully turned off and doors are closed.
“If I don’t have enough staff, then I simply cannot open,” Colarusso said. “A single person calls out, and that can make the difference between opening or closing for the day.”
Sometimes, this can happen three or four times a week, Colarusso said.
Brookside is currently closed on Sundays, but Colarusso’s sign outside the pizza place worked, and he has successfully hired several new people in the past few weeks. Once the new employees are trained, he hopes to reopen all seven days.
Anomaly for the industry
Valliere, of Hermanos, has no answer for the current lack of workers.
“I have been running a restaurant for 37 years and this is – never, never have I ever seen anything compare with the shortage of workers,” she said.
Across the state, unemployment is at a low at 2.9 percent for June 2021. A year ago, it was 10.3 percent, more than three times the current level.
Despite posting on Facebook, indeed.com and even advertising on the radio – a first for Red Arrow – restaurants fear that people are choosing other industries.
“I think a lot of people are looking at different careers, something that is not going to be affected if we have another pandemic,” Valliere said.
Not to mention that the work of a line cook, in particular, is a tough job, according to Thompson.
“It is long hours on your feet in the heat behind a heat lamp or in front of the stove,” Thompson said. “It is hard work.”
What makes it more challenging is that the customers are there, but the cooks are not.
“People are lined out the door every night,” Valliere said, “but I just can’t let them in because I don’t have enough people to keep up with the demand.”
To manage the influx of customers, McClellan staggers Red Arrow’s dining room. The empty tables and bar stools may confuse customers who have just been told they have to wait over an hour to be seated, but the three to four employees in the kitchen simply can’t keep up with the number of orders from a full restaurant.
“Our staff is outnumbered when it comes to customers,” McClellan said.
The same goes for Hermanos, where the number of empty tables is not for lack of business.
“I am sure people walk in the door and say, ‘Look at all those empty tables,’ ” Valliere said. “Those tables are all empty because I cannot get enough people to cook for us.”
The best word Wihby can find to explain the current situation is ironic.
“Last year, during the pandemic, nobody was coming out to eat and we had people working. This year, we have people lining up to eat, but nobody to feed them,” she said.
But if she has learned anything in her decade at Red Arrow, where she worked her way up from receptionist to co-owner, is that people want to dine out. And eventually, she knows they will find employees to serve them.
“We are struggling right now, but we will survive,” she said. “Our industry will get through this.”
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