Diners have come back, but staffing still a problem

  • Brenda Martel, owner of Cafe Deja Vu, is shown here talking with patrons Christian and Pete Cellupica on Thursday. She said that her business did well this summer, but that she is concerned about a bridge repair project that will close the most direct route from downtown to her cafe. Adam Drapcho / Laconia Daily Sun

  • The team of managers at Patrick's Pub in Gilford. Established restaurants like Patrick's should be able to weather the storm of challenges businesses are facing, but newer or more vulnerable places might suffer. —Courtesy

  • Diners on the deck of T-Bones in Laconia. Tom Boucher, CEO-owner of Great American Restaurants, said staffing has been a significant challenge all year despite efforts to attract new employees. Courtesy

The Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 9/17/2021 5:15:53 PM

After two years of pandemic pivoting, many restaurateurs didn’t find relief in the on-season this summer because staff shortages and record-high numbers of patrons kept them busier than they could manage.

Customers were frustrated with long wait times, and employees were burning out. It was hard to strike any kind of balance.

Restaurant owners managed by continuing to pivot. Along with sumptuous seasonal fare, these champions of the hospitality industry served up creativity and change as they worked to keep everyone happy.

Many establishments closed one day a week — even longtime, powerhouses like the Pizza Barn in Ossipee, in its 50th year of business. Others trimmed their operating hours; still others did both. Sections of restaurants went unused, confusing customers who could see open tables as harried hosts were turning them away.

Creative incentive programs were launched and updated to recruit new employees, but not always with a lot of luck.

“It’s been busy virtually every day of the week,” said Tom Boucher, CEO-owner of Great NH Restaurants, Inc., which operates T-BONES and Cactus Jack’s in Laconia. “I’m not clear, looking down the road, is that going to stay like that? Everything’s been so unpredictable, I just don’t know.”

Why the staff shortages?

All businesses suffered from broad-scope pandemic effects. In the restaurant industry, it began with forced closures, moved into partial re-openings and paved the way for innovative measures such as curbside pick-up, delivery programs and outdoor dining. Major chains such as Applebee’s, Carrabba’s Italian Grill and Friendly’s were among the dozens shuttering locations.

Surely, beleaguered owners thought, spring and widespread vaccination would mark the start of a return to normal—as it did for eager diners, ready to get out and sit down for a nice meal. Instead, the problems just changed. In the face of incredible foot traffic, it was difficult to find staff, and no one really understands why.

“We heard, ‘I don’t have childcare,’ ” said Allan Beetle, co-owner of Patrick’s Pub & Eatery in Gilford, which started the summer season with about 60 employees when the norm is 85. “We heard, ‘I have someone to care for.’ We heard, ‘I want to stay home and be safe.’ We had plenty of customers and not enough staff.”

Like many other restaurants, Patrick’s enhanced its employee benefits and also started an incentive program, offering a referral program through which the referrer and new staff member would each receive $500 after 90 days. “Still, we couldn’t get people to show up for interviews.”

Kaylon Sweet, chef-owner of OsteriaPoggio in Center Harbor said he thinks overworked employees are soured on the restaurant industry and are finding work elsewhere. “We have had a lot of people come and apply for work, accept the job, and then decide they don’t want to work in a restaurant,” he added. “We’re putting too much pressure on people working for minimum wages.”

Patience, please

The staff shortages and record business led to the problem of diners experiencing long wait times. They were turned away at the door, and sometimes, they were surprised to discover a “Closed” sign on their favorite restaurant.

Tempers flared, and waitstaff bared the brunt of the impatience.

“We all need to be respectful and patient,” said Karmen Gifford, president of the Lakes Region Chamber, noting that diners should check restaurants’ websites and social media channels before heading off, hungry. “I’ve heard too many stories this summer of frustrated customers creating scenes, reducing restaurant staff to tears with verbal abuse. Some of these employees are teenagers who have reconsidered this career path.”

Beyond offering compassion and understanding, Gifford says the Lakes Region community could help respond to the widespread staff shortages across all industries by brainstorming solutions, such as sharing staff. “The region has always been great at collaboration,” she said.

Training, such as hospitality skill training could be offered to area staff by local colleges. Businesses could also empower staff in taking over such tasks as managing social media promotions and keeping information timely and relevant. “The more engaged and valued an employee is, it creates more pride and commitment to their workplace,” Gifford said.

She also noted the Chamber is working with the state to look for new ways to support restaurants through technology and federal and/or state funding opportunities. Larger restaurants use technology that allows consumers to check in, order online as well as pay their bill at their table. “We are looking at how these opportunities could be offered to smaller restaurants with even less staff,” she said.

What fall and winter bring

As COVID-19 numbers rise and the delta variant infects even the vaccinated, Gifford is concerned that consumers will reconsider eating indoors. This could lead to a 180-turn from busy to slow in fall and winter.

“It’s important that communication is provided to the public on takeout, delivery and curbside options,” she said. “It’s important to remind the public that many restaurants invested in air filtration systems to keep their staff and their customers as safe as possible.”

As they work through the last of tourism season, which should begin to taper down after Columbus Day, restaurants are tackling a new shift: how to keep their staff busy if business drops off again.

Last year, Sweet at OsteriaPoggio drummed up business by getting creative. The business offered meal kits, which provided a week’s worth of ingredients for a family, and it offered online cooking classes and to-go meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas. They also provided thousands of free meals and school lunches, which they will continue to do.

This fall, OsteriaPoggio will offer the cooking classes again along with what Sweet called pop-up restaurants; for a week at a time, the restaurant will swap in a new theme and menu concept. Recently, he also instituted self-service, rather than table service, to give servers a break. “We just keep pivoting,” he said. “What else can we do that has value? We’re doing it to make sure the servers and the entire staff are taken care of.”

At Patrick’s, mid-week business has slowed down, but on the weekends, the restaurant is still at full capacity, but the staff team is not. Beetle is not sure whether Patrick’s will need to seek new hires in the fall.

But because the restaurant is a long-time staple in the region, it will be able to weather whatever surprises come the region’s way. “If this happened to us in the first five years of our business, we might not have made it through. We were struggling as it was to make ends meet. But yes, we are established. We have no debt. We have a built-up infrastructure of equipment and facilities—everything that goes along with that. So, we’re able to get through this.”

Boucher of T-BONES and Cactus Jack’s echoed the sentiment. “Winter doesn’t scare me. We’ve been open since 2007,” he said.

Additional obstacle

Brenda Martel, the owner CaféDéjà vu, has an additional obstacle to contend with come Oct. 12, when reconstruction of the nearby Durkee Bridge, across from the Budget Gas on Court Street, begins. “What that means is that if you’re in downtown Laconia, you’ll have to take the bypass and circle back around to the restaurant,” she said, noting she doesn’t feel too anxious about that. “I have a lot of loyal customers who will take the extra time to get here.”

She added, “They’ve done construction before. It definitely affects business. I don’t know what to expect. I’m sure we’ll be fine through it. We’ve had a good year coming up to it. If we’d been more affected by COVID, like we were last year, that would be devastating.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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