As they continue to struggle the impact of the pandemic, restaurant owners are grappling with an unexpected obstacle: finding workers.
“It’s been surprisingly difficult,” said Melissa Maggiore, owner of the soon-to-open northern Scottsdale restaurant The Italian Daughter.
It has been so difficult for Maggiore to fill all 25 positions at her restaurant that she had to delay opening nearly two weeks.
“As a restaurant owner, I have been counting down the days until we are finally open again and able to just go back to ‘business as usual’ and I thought that employees would have been as ecstatic as well,” she said. “We’ve all been in this rollercoaster together and I would have thought that there would have been a line out the door that people would be fighting for their jobs back.”
Other restaurant owners in Scottsdale and beyond echo her concerns as they emerge from a year that at one point saw 80 percent of the industry’s workforce laid off.
“We have been posting notices for multiple positions in multiple locations and just aren’t getting a lot of feedback,” said Kristin Dossetti, co-owner of Zinqué at Scottsdale Fashion Square.
Owners cite several possible reasons for the hiring troubles, such as enhancements of unemployment benefits.
Owners also attribute the hiring challenges to former employees gaining new skills and moving out of the industry.
“They went and got a different skillset. They started other careers,” Maggiore said. “I know several people that got their real estate license, or they went back to school, and they went to do something different that would be more lucrative during the pandemic.”
“Now, they don’t want to come back.”
Mark Tarbell, the James Beard Foundation-nominated chef and owner of Tarbell’s in Phoenix, noted, “Many potential or past team members have moved out of state, to other careers or are hesitant to return for a variety of reasons that arise from the pandemic.”
The restaurant industry was already struggling with labor shortages before the pandemic.
Now, the small pool of qualified applicants has led to what Maggiore calls a “bidding war.”
“There’s a small percentage of people that are looking for jobs in the restaurant industry but because they’re so few and far between, they will show up for one day, they’ll do an interview, they’ll accept the position, but then they’ll get a different offer from someone else. And there’s almost a bidding war, if you will, among the restaurant workers that are willing to come back to work,” Maggiore explained.
Tarbell said he has seen this level of competitiveness at least three times over the past 25 years.
“Usually, it gets better in six to eight months and always the industry standard of pay is increased,” he said.
But Maggiore said that even with higher wages, the real problem is a tiny percentage of people currently looking for jobs in restaurants.
The pool is so small that it has left general managers like Jeff Berger of Zinqué in the dust.
“Recently, I’ve been hiring for multiple positions and I’ve noticed how quickly people are accepting the first offer they receive because nearly half the interviews I schedule are canceled by the applicant because they’ve accepted a position elsewhere,” Berger said.
Berger said as restrictions like capacity limits are lifted, more people are being hired in a shorter amount of time, but he is trying to avoid another problem.
“However, with the vetting process being minimized, or eliminated, restaurants are going to see a lot of turnover, which is costly in many ways and something I’m trying to avoid,” Berger explained. “I don’t want to take too much time and potentially lose a great addition to my team, yet I don’t want to rush my hiring process either.”
While owners are struggling with filling all positions, from front to back of the house; Tarbell and Maggiore say the entry-level dining and culinary positions are the most challenging to fill.
“It’s been very difficult to find a kitchen staff,” Maggiore said. “You need somebody with experience to work in a kitchen and to be able to put out the dishes and the menu that you’d like to see executed.”
Plus, Tarbell added regarding entry-level dining positions: “Minimum wage is just not interesting enough in today’s world.”
Arizona isn’t the only state facing these hiring challenges.
In a recent Ohio Restaurant Association survey, 36 percent of respondents said they were unable to fill open positions, and another 32 percent said they had difficulty filling open jobs.
“I have called all of my friends that are all over the country — restaurateurs throughout the Valley, as well as California, New York, Washington, DC. — and it seems to be something that is being experienced in our industry nationwide,” Maggiore said.
While Dossetti, who has several Zinqué restaurants in California, has an “incredibly strong core team” at all of their locations, she’s had just as difficult of a time finding and hiring on team members at her California restaurants as she has her Scottsdale restaurant.
“It’s just been very difficult to find people,” Dossetti said, “and I’m not talking about one category of worker, I’m talking about front of house, back of house, management level — across the board.”
Currently, Berger is in search of one more host and one more busser/food runner at Scottsdale Zinqué. He’s been trying to fill those positions since January.
Maggiore, on the other hand, has about 20 positions left to fill at the Italian Daughter, including servers, line cooks, bartenders and hosts.
For Tarbell, the situation now impacts the future. “We have some big goals for this year,” he said, “and we need good people to grow.”