Shortage of workers in the restaurant industry, other challenges raise fears of mass closures

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The pandemic has hit Connecticut’s restaurant industry. More than two years later, customers have returned, but restaurants continue to face an arguably tougher challenge: They can’t hire staff.

“It’s almost impossible to find workers,” said Alison De Renzi, co-owner and manager of L’Orcio, a fine dining establishment in New Haven. “It is very frustrating.”

Connecticut Restaurant Association President and CEO Scott Dolch said the state’s foodservice labor shortage is near crisis, with restaurant staff down from 30 to 40% from pre-pandemic levels.

He estimated that the industry is short of 20,000 to 22,000 workers with no end in sight. Add to that inflation driving up wages and the cost of everything else, and you have a perfect storm pushing many state restaurants to the brink, Dolch said.

“It’s a very scary time right now,” he said. “The reality is people are out, people are supporting (the restaurants). But perception is not reality. People see a crowded restaurant and think they are making a profit.

Steve Abrams, vice president of Max Hospitality — which operates 10 restaurants, most in the Hartford area, including Max Downtown and Trumbull Kitchen in downtown Hartford, and a restaurant business — said he was able to s cling to its more qualified employees but cannot find workers for less qualified positions.

All but a few of its kitchens are understaffed, forcing the remaining employees to work harder than ever, he said.

Abrams blamed some of the blame on the pandemic, which has caused many restaurant workers to rethink their lives and careers, he said.

Contributed

Francesco d’Amuri and Alison De Renzi are co-owners of L’Orcio restaurant in New Haven.

“The restaurant industry has been turned upside down and the world has changed,” he said. “I think a lot of people in those positions realized that maybe it was a better lifestyle to have a different kind of job.”

The tight job market following the worst of the pandemic has made matters worse, Abrams said. Even when he hires someone, it’s not uncommon for them to quit after a few days to look for something better, he says.

“There are people here who come in to apply for a job and work a day or two and leave,” Abrams said.

Although Max’s retains its best employees, the inability to hire less skilled workers is depriving it of an agricultural team. The group has a policy of moving promising workers up the ladder, teaching them knife skills and preparing cold food, then moving them to more difficult tasks, he said.

Max’s responded by ramping up recruitment – its human resources manager now spends most of her time beating bushes for employees – and offering signing bonuses payable after a worker has worked a certain number of days, Abrams said. The group also offers employees $1,000 bonuses for each person they refer who trains, he said.

In the longer term, Abrams said the group is looking at more automation, machines, for example, that slice vegetables and French fries. The restaurant, which has been hit by a steep rise in the cost of virtually everything — meat alone has risen 25% to 30% in two years — is also making less profit to spare its customers the sticker shock, said he declared.

“We’d much rather cut our margins a bit and make sure we’re lean and mean before we raise our menu prices,” Abrams said.

De Renzi tells a similar story at L’Orcio in New Haven, which she co-owns with her chef-husband. She said she doesn’t know how anyone can be successful today unless they’re an owner-operator who can do just about anything.

“In our situation, I can serve tables, I can host and run a bar,” De Renzi said. “I can no longer imagine a restaurant that didn’t have an owner who couldn’t do every part of the job.”

The Orcio, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in February, is struggling to hire workers of all kinds, from kitchen help to waiters to a hostess, she said. Many kitchen workers fear the complexity of the food, and the restaurant has gone months without a hostess, she said.

De Renzi said she tried to recruit four new servers for the summer, but none of them got hired because they got better deals or only wanted to work certain ones. days. The restaurant managed to get by by bringing a parent and the couple’s teenage daughter to work, she said.

“It was difficult,” said De Renzi. “I feel very lucky because I have a very long-standing work team that has worked for me for years, even decades. It’s definitely not sustainable.

Massive closures

Dolch said he fears the formidable hurdles facing state restaurants could lead to mass closures.

He noted that 73% of restaurants in the state are locally owned instead of franchises or chains, which he cites as one of the main reasons for the state’s vibrant food scene. He fears the local owner-operator will be supplanted by large chains that can better absorb rising costs and labor shortages.

To fight back, Dolch said he is planning events for owners to showcase ways to navigate an increasingly difficult business environment. These challenges are not going away anytime soon, however, he said.

“We’re not going to flip a switch, and we’re back to normal,” Dolch said. “It’s going to take years.”

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