Salina restaurants keep staff employed during labor shortage


As “hiring now” signs are plentiful throughout Salina, there appears to be a shortage of employees to fill vacancies throughout the county.

Although it’s been a tough two years in the restaurant industry, local food establishments have had a chance in recent months to meet staffing needs.

“I think we’ve really thrived as we’ve come out of the pandemic and (staff) hasn’t been a terrible concern for us,” said Tim Blake, owner of the recently opened Hickory Hut and Prickly Pear in Salina. “I think a lot of family businesses, sole proprietorships and unincorporated businesses have done relatively well.”

Blake said his restaurants are full right now and while there has been some employee turnover and it’s been a little harder to hire, his business continues to grow and thrive, which which is similar to other long standing local restaurants in Salina. .

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The pulled pork sandwich with beans and potato salad at Hickory Hut in Salina.

Dealing with changes after the pandemic

One of the reasons local restaurants have been able to thrive is understanding the changes resulting from the COVID pandemic.

“It’s just about paying people and paying them what they’re worth,” Blake said. “It’s a situation where you want to invest in good people, and when you do that, your business is going to be successful.”

Blake said he understands workers are now demanding more wages, and he thinks it’s important for companies to follow that.

“If an organization were to struggle with payroll and wage growth, it’s a situation they’re going to regret,” Blake said.

According to Blake, local small businesses seem to understand this growth situation better than some of the larger companies, and they are learning to adapt to it.

“We have a lot of very long-serving employees,” he said. “Work is never fun all the time, but I know I enjoy going there, and I think our employees do too. If you can create an environment where people can feel fulfilled in the work they do , that’s the first step.”

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Prickly Pear, 123 S. Santa Fe Ave., is a Tex-Mex restaurant in downtown Salina.

Success is not unique to a restaurant business

The owner of another longtime Salina restaurant, Martinelli’s Little Italy, Tony Dong agrees that much of the success he has had since the pandemic can be attributed to paying well and treating employees well.

“We’re fully booked right now (but) still looking for good servers and such,” Dong said. “There was a time for about six months where we were short and had to do what we could to get staff.”

According to Dong, one of the changes Martinelli made during this time to address issues was deciding to close one day a week.

“We decided the best thing to do was to be closed on Sundays,” he said.

This change, although a major one, since the restaurant had been open 7 days a week for over 20 years, was actually welcome, and the staff took advantage of it.

“We quite like it,” Dong said. “I don’t know if we will go back.”

He said that at the start of this change, there were concerns that the company would suffer financially, but Martinelli’s endured.

“Our sales haven’t suffered at all,” Dong said. “I don’t know if it’s because we’re just busier in general now or if we have (clients) who have adjusted their schedules.”

There are about 50 total employees at Martinelli’s, and about 15 to 20 who work full-time, some of whom have worked at the restaurant for a long time.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and there’s a definite change in the way you have to deal with people,” Dong said. “It’s probably better now (than 20 years ago). We don’t take people for granted and do everything we can to make it a good working environment.”

He said while catering and other industries have long known the importance of keeping staff happy, since the pandemic it is becoming much more evident.

Keeping up with salary growth is also important, especially as Martinelli strives to retain a well-established group of long-serving employees.

“The (people) who have been here for more than two years…we tried to control their salary with inflation, making sure we paid them well,” Dong said. “We’re doing everything we can to hold on to those people who are essential (to us).”

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A full workforce a welcome sign for the local economy

As far as the overall economy of Salina goes, it’s good to have and see a full staff.

Mitch Robinson, director of the Salina Community Economic Development Organization, said he has noticed in recent weeks that businesses are doing what they can to keep up with demand.

An example was Prickly Pear, which he visited on a recent Friday evening.

“They had more than adequate (staff) for a Friday night, which is always a critical test for…a new (restaurant) operation,” Robinson said.

While he generally deals with trying to attract bigger business and economic investment to Salina, Robinson said the staffing situation, with big and small, points to the larger issues of supply and demand.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve never seen the shortage of people like we do now,” Robinson said.

While there’s no single answer to the staffing shortages seen across the country, Robinson said the things places like Hickory Hut, Prickly Pear and Martinelli’s are doing are a step in the right direction.

“It pays people at a higher salary level right now,” Robinson said.

By following current salary expectations, businesses can thrive.

“You have to be ahead of the curve,” Robinson said. “If you ever get to the point where you’re behind, you have to increase your rate of pay more and more… It’s been a tough couple of years for everyone, and I think those who do it well get the job done. quality work they need.


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