A year ago, Jacksonville’s restaurant owners faced a challenge: how to adapt and survive amid a mandatory shutdown of dining rooms due to the coronavirus pandemic.
To keep the lights on — and serve their customers and keep as many of their employees on the job as possible — they did just that. They added drive-thrus, pivoted to takeout only, added curbside pickup and launched in-house delivery services. Some even added food trucks.
Others, however, were forced to turn off the lights altogether — either temporarily or, in some cases, forever.
Now, with vaccine centers up and running, mask mandates discontinued and social distancing a distant memory, people are returning to Jacksonville restaurants in close to pre-pandemic numbers.
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But one group remains absent: restaurant employees.
“This is the new epidemic, not enough staff,” said Chad Munsey, co-owner of the popular The Bearded Pig, which recently opened its second barbecue restaurant in Jacksonville Beach.
Many line cook, server and bartender jobs remain vacant with few — if any — applicants.
“The number of staff who have walked out during a shift or never even shown up for the first day is unfathomable. Something has to give soon,” said Munsey, a 29-year restaurant veteran with 25 years of ownership experience.
The Bearded Pig is not alone.
From newly opened to established favorites, from fast-casual to fine dining, at least 100 Jacksonville restaurants — such as Prati Italia, Town Hall, Ember & Iron, M Shack, Rue Saint-Marc and Firehouse Subs — are confronting staff shortages to varying degrees.
It’s virtually impossible right now, many owners say, to hire — much less retain — skilled employees essential to satisfy the appetites of guests hungry for a quality dining experience, whether it’s a simple sandwich or multi-course meal.
Jacksonville Chef Mike Cooney and his wife, Brittany, opened Ember & Iron in St. Johns in February. It’s been an ongoing challenge for the veteran restaurateurs to staff the new restaurant, the first in Northeast Florida specializing in live-fire, ember-roasted hearth cuisine.
They get a ton of resumes and telephone calls from people practically begging to work at the restaurant, Brittany Cooney, the restaurant’s manager said.
“I’d say about 75 percent don’t show up to the interview. The 25 percent who do show up, we’ll say OK, come in, you’re hired, start on this day and they don’t show up,” she said.
To try to eliminate the no-shows, she said they started offering their existing staff a $100 cash finder’s fee for referring a new hire who stays at the restaurant for at least 90 days.
It didn’t work. They then took to social media, offering a $100 signing bonus offer, prompting a paltry three applications.
“One guy we actually brought on and he lasted about two weeks and then he just walked out,” Cooney said. “That could have been because we’re so busy. But just to walk out, that’s insane to me. There’s no respect. That’s just crazy.”
The labor shortage has forced Ember & Iron and other area restaurants to close on Mondays and turn away customers on some occasions.
And that’s a recipe for disaster, say restaurant owners and managers confronting empty tables and a new problem: complaints.
Plenty of job applicants, but few willing to work
Munsey said it started last summer. The Bearded Pig was getting a lot people applying for jobs, but then one or two unusual things happened:
“No. 1, people were not showing up for interviews and No. 2, they’d show up for the interview, get hired but then not show up for the first day of work,” Munsey said. They didn’t realize what was happening until they got flooded with applications from people with “zero restaurant experience.”
“We found they were doing that to continue getting their unemployment benefits,” Munsey said.
Finding line cooks and other kitchen staff, he said, has been the hardest problem. It’s approaching crippling proportions for his restaurant known for its ribs, brisket, pulled pork, turkey, chicken and innovative Southern side dishes.
Munsey and co-owner Michael Schmidt opened the second Bearded Pig on March 18 in Jacksonville Beach. They expect to open another location in about 60 days at 1808 Kings Ave. — within a half-mile of the original restaurant at 1224 Kings Ave. — in San Marco. The original eatery then will be used for special events, they said.
The issue goes beyond dollars and cents, Munsey and other restaurant owners say.
“This is not about using a staff shortage as a crutch or excuse. It’s about being concerned about the staff I do have being worn out,” Munsey said. “My crew works really, really hard … But now it’s gotten to the point where business is starting to exceed pre-COVID numbers and my guys are just worn out.”
Munsey said his San Marco restaurant averages about 5,000 meals a week. And in less than a month since its opening, the Jacksonville Beach restaurant is nearing that same number, he said.
His barbecue crew needs time to rest. Not only is it unhealthy for them not to have time to rest, but it’s also essential to prevent accidents and injuries, he said.
“I’m having to close early multiple days of the week at the beach, close an entire day because I’m looking at my guys’ faces and they are just worn out,” said Munsey, who’s routinely working about 105 hours a week himself at the barbecue — in the kitchen — conceding he’s also worn out.
“It’s frustrating because I need help. My guys need help and I don’t know where everybody is,” Munsey said of the labor shortage — a sentiment echoed by other owners locally and nationwide.
Like other restaurants, The Bearded Pig is offering a signing bonus of $250 to new hires and using social media to attract new workers. So far, it hasn’t worked out.
“We are all just trying daily to make it happen,” he said.
Pandemic hits restaurants with one-two punch
As bad as the pandemic is, it was just a prelude to the current restaurant woes.
About 600,000 Florida restaurant workers were laid off or furloughed at the beginning of the pandemic. An estimated 10,000 restaurants statewide closed and many haven’t reopened, according to the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.
“No industry has been hit harder by COVID-19 than the hospitality industry,” said Carol Dover, president and chief executive officer of the association.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated only about half of the lost jobs have returned, according to its March 26 report.
Ashley Chambers, FRLA press secretary, said there are no hard numbers for how many restaurant workers in the Jacksonville area or statewide remain unemployed.
“The current challenge is that we have restaurants who are having to restrict hours, close certain days, and/or limit their occupancy in order to control the staffing shortages. It’s directly affecting their businesses and the income of the workers they do have,” Chambers said.
More:Jacksonville-area unemployment dips to 3.7% as thousands return to work during pandemic
Ironically, the restaurant labor shortage might be rooted in unemployment benefits intended to help workers, some restaurateurs say.
Labor shortage not limited to Jacksonville
“It is a very tight labor market right now,” said Don Fox, chief executive officer of Firehouse Subs, founded and headquartered in Jacksonville.
The homegrown sandwich shop chain has 1,198 stores throughout the United States and Canada, including 170 in Florida and 36 in the Jacksonville area, he said.
Fox said Firehouse has solid teams and is doing better than other restaurants locally and nationwide, but it, too, has been affected by the pandemic and labor shortage.
“It’s a difficult environment, which is a little counter-intuitive in some ways. It varies by markets around the country, but I’m hard-pressed to say there is any part of the country that is immune to it right now,” Fox said.
The reasons for the shortage vary, he said. Currently, there is a lot of discussion in the restaurant community about the impact of the federal stimulus and ongoing unemployment benefits, he said.
He said it’s a good challenge in that those funds are an infusion of money into the marketplace “that has really spiked business for the restaurant industry.”
“Wholesale across the board, restaurants that are operating right now, especially in the last two-to-three weeks, have seen significant increases in sales volume,” Fox said.
“On the other hand, the stimulus money from time to time becomes an incentive for people not to come to work, take time off or switch jobs,” said Fox, noting he’s heard those anecdotal experiences from his peers with different restaurant concepts across the country.
Firehouse Subs is doing better than similar restaurants, he said, because of its philanthropy and what it does in the community, which is a rallying point for many employees.
In addition, he said Firehouse Subs jobs aren’t as high-pressure or complex as other types of restaurants because it doesn’t require working with fryers or hot grills.
Another factor is the sandwich chain pays at least $10 an hour depending on experience and position. Starting in the fall, that will be the hourly minimum wage throughout the industry, he said.
Competitive wages and benefits help, restaurateurs say, but it can’t solve the shortage.
Jacksonville Chef Matthew Medure says restaurants have experienced staff shortages on and off for at least the past five years but “it’s just ramped up lately.”
Medure and his brother, Chef David Medure, founded fine dining restaurants Matthew’s Restaurant, Restaurant Medure, Midtown Table, Rue Saint-Marc and the more casual M Shack burger concept. All have been impacted to varying degrees by the shortage, he said.
“The M Shacks were hit the hardest. Our full-service locations suffered mostly in the back of house. Tipped employees are more stable as it relates to turnover or resources,” Matthew Medure said.
Medure thinks the current shortage “might be due to a mix of not having enough population and resources to fill all the needs, as well as the recent increased government benefits.”
Prati Italia and Town Hall — both from Chef Tom Gray — are among Jacksonville’s most popular and respected restaurants.
Prati currently has seven job openings, including five server vacancies and two others in the kitchen. An opening at Town Hall recently was filled although it took a few weeks longer than typical.
Both restaurants are operating with staff shortages. But they are limited in how much they can do. Some nights they don’t fully open the restaurant dining rooms because they don’t have enough servers or kitchen staff, said Gray and his wife and business partner Sarah Marie Johnston.
An absence of servers means instead of the normal three-table section, the remaining waiters handle up to five tables. When they’re spread thin like that it’s difficult to provide the high level of service that customers expect and deserve, Gray said.
Johnston said they accept reservations at both restaurants. While they know how many are scheduled, the number of walk-in guests is a wild card each night. More walk-ins require last-minute flexibility that isn’t always possible if they don’t have enough staff to compensate, she said.
Gray said customers can help offset that situation by making and keeping reservations. But if they have to cancel, let the restaurant know in advance so a table is available for someone else, he said.
Restaurants aren’t the only ones hurting. Customers are feeling the pain of the labor shortage as well.
When a restaurant is short-staffed, it often takes longer to seat customers, prepare and serve their food and refill drinks. Most guests are understanding.
Others, though, are not. Some have taken to social media to complain bitterly about slow service, canceled reservations, an over-cooked or under-cooked entree, and even a forgotten side of extra ranch dressing.
“We have 90 percent of the guests who are completely understanding. They get it. But there is that 10 percent who don’t feel that way,” said Ember & Iron’s Brittany Cooney.
She said their staff is doing the best they can under extremely difficult circumstances. The restaurant opens at 4 p.m. and “the kitchen doesn’t stop putting out food until the second we close after a six-hour service” six days a week, she said.
“Overall, service, in general, could be faster, better, stronger if we just had more people,” said Cooney, who often is pulled away from running the front of the house to help out in the kitchen.
“Normally, I could be out helping the guests, putting out fires, talking to people and telling them about our brand,” she said, noting that interaction is essential.
The restaurant owners say the longer the shortage lingers, the greater the potential loss of customers, which ultimately could lead to closure.
As they welcome guests back to their tables, the owners are asking for patience and a little understanding.
“Just understand the predicament that we’re in and that we’re still going to work our [butt] off to put out great food in a timely fashion,” Munsey said. “But if it’s not exactly what it’s supposed to be, don’t go pan us online and don’t pitch a fit. Let’s see what we can do to make it right. Just understand.”