Labor shortage continues to pose challenges for local restaurants

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Hector Samuel, the owner of Tap & Vine on Quinnipiac Street in Wallingford, posted a warning on social media this week stating the eatery would close as soon as Sunday if he didn’t get a chef and a line cook in the next few days. 

“As you all know, there are labor shortages in all areas of the economy,” Samuel wrote to customers and supporters in a post on the Tap & Vine Facebook page. “Restaurants have been hit hard and Tap & Vine is no exception. At any given time, we have been short a cook or two for the past 18 months ... This is not a tenable position for us. There is no way for any one person in our kitchen to prepare enough food fast enough to satisfy anyone’s standards, let alone ours.”

Samuel continued that without a successful candidate or two, the restaurant is prepared to close on Sunday. 

Tap & Vine isn’t the only restaurant facing a shortage of bartenders, cooks and servers. Supply shortages have further squeezed the industry. 

“Many of them are leaving the industry for a lot of reasons,” Samuel said. “Cooking jobs in restaurants are hard work as it is. You don’t get paid a lot of money, you get burned on a regular basis. You work nights, weekends, holidays. When the pandemic happened, cooks got out of the kitchen and spent time with families. They got another job, maybe at Amazon where they can pick their hours.”

Once restaurants began partially reopening in May 2020, Tap & Vine increased wages but found that cooks weren’t leaving to go to another restaurant, they were leaving the business. Samuel doesn’t have time to train anyone, he needs to find people “who can walk into the kitchen and cook.”

Tap & Vine is a small operation with a staff of eight. But even larger restaurants have felt the pinch, leading to more hours for existing staff, and reduced hours of operation.

“It’s been a challenge for a long time and it’s pandemic-related,” said Michael Tiscia, owner of Michael’s Trattoria, also in Wallingford. “We only closed for three weeks, we kept all our kitchen staff. This is where my son, myself, and everybody helps. The small restaurants that are family run, they do the labor. There are a lot of people in my family that help me.”

The servers at Michael’s Trattoria returned as soon as they could, but in the early days of the pandemic Tiscia and his son worked around the clock.

“We had to get down to sweat and tears,” Tiscia said. “You can’t Zoom with a restaurant. It’s been a tough year. I’ve never seen it like this before.”

The owner of Westbrook Lobster in Wallingford tells a similar story and at some points has had to reduce hours because of labor shortages.

“We’re still having trouble getting quality servers bartenders and hosts,” said owner Michael Lariviere. “All the staff have been picking up hours. We’re a tight-knit team and we’ve been making it work. We’re still running bare bones during the week. But all guests realize what’s going on. They’re very patient and understanding.”

Cheryl Moran, co-owner of Anthony Jacks Wood Fired Grill on Center Street in Southington, said the restaurant enjoyed a strong take-out business that increased during the pandemic, but once the restaurants were allowed to reopen, Anthony Jacks experienced the same labor shortage as others.

“It’s definitely something that affected us,” Moran said. “We were very lucky we didn’t have to close. We had family style meals and were able to retain a lot of employees. We started to feel the shortage when we reopened. I don’t think it was one factor, (it was) a perfect storm of factors.”

The extended unemployment benefits may have contributed to the difficulty getting workers to return, but since they ended in early September the hiring situation hasn’t improved. At the end of summer, there were child care issues and schools reopening.

“A lot of it really is that people in lower wage jobs haven’t been getting paid enough and people aren’t happy,” Moran said. “People want more money.”

Moran said that despite paying above minimum wage, employees are asking for more. For instance, a dishwasher earning $15 to $16 an hour can ask for $18 an hour because another restaurant is offering that. Moran could call their bluff, but the restaurant really needs that employee so they get the raise.

“Now it’s starting to become a problem,” she said. “I worked my way through college in restaurants, now it seems like everybody wants a raise. As a restaurant owner, now my labor has increased, we’re busier than ever, but I need people, I need bodies.”

Supply shortages and rising food and supply costs are further challenging restaurants as they try to pay more to keep and attract workers. Moran said demand for product has caused operational expenses to spike leaving restaurant owners with tough choices; reduce hours, take money out of the operation, go out of business, or raise prices.

“The bottom line is you’re not making as much money,” Moran said. “I have no problem paying people more, but at some point I have to ask, are you willing to pay $37 dollars for that filet mignon instead of $27? The shortage of labor trickles down.”

Anthony Jacks is closed Mondays and Tuesdays now to give its kitchen workers two days off a week because there is no backup.

The combination of challenges in the business will likely force Anthony Jacks to raise prices for the first time in four years, Moran said.

“Places cannot stay in business with the increase in labor and food costs,” Moran said. “Restaurant businesses have a razor-thin profit margin as it is. There are many who are not going to make it.”

mgodin@record-journal.com203-317-2255Twitter: @Cconnbiz


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