With sunny weather, longer days, increased vaccine availability, and statewide regulations easing, one of the first things most folks want to do is head to their favorite local restaurant. After more than a year of limited freedom and loss of socializing opportunities, reknitting our social fabric while supporting local restaurants has released a pent-up demand beyond the staffing capabilities of most restaurants.
Industry groups report that “Restaurants were hit harder than most any other industry during the pandemic, and still have the longest climb back to pre-coronavirus employment levels.”
Locally owned and community focused Harbor Foodservice provides the brands and products needed to keep restaurants serving and also maintains a complimentary team of restaurant and chef consultants to provide culinary and operational support. Harbor Foodservice consultant Andy Cook shared, “Service is meeting expectations, hospitality is exceeding them. Hospitality is a performance with a lot of behind-the-scenes complexities. Communicating how the labor shortage is affecting flow in a way that informs expectations will hopefully create a more positive experience for everyone.”
“For instance,” states Cook, “if a guest feels their service is inattentive, it’s likely because the server’s section is 10 tables when it should be 5 or 6. Same for a kitchen staff of three that should be five.”
Cook continues, “Parenting priorities, occupational stability, unemployment stimulus, and other factors are tangible obstacles between ‘help wanted’ and hiring. New applicants are almost nonexistent.”
Dawn Mecham, of Visconti’s Hospitality Group, oversees operations in four restaurants, and two gelato parlors in the Leavenworth and Wenatchee area. She encourages diners to “Please be patient with our young employees, for many this is their first job. For instance, to ensure that we’re able to meet our high standard of service and quality, we require that tables remain unseated to control the volume of orders to our kitchen and bar. Sometimes our guests only see an empty table and express frustration for not being given access to it.”
Beyond staffing, Visconti’s Hospitality Group also faces shipment woes. “Our supply chain is still fraught with disruptions,” admits Mecham. “One example is we have a wine list that numbers in the hundreds; I’ve been waiting months for an order from Italy with still no idea when it’ll arrive. This sort of situation is presenting itself in unexpected ways.”
Dean Damitio, owner/operator of Olympia’s Westside Tavern and neighboring HASH breakfast restaurant shared “Support for local businesses and restaurants has been inspirational this past year and as restrictions ease, that support has continued. When the challenge of serving with limited staffing results in delays or product outage, I know it feels like we don’t value their support, nothing could be further from the truth, our guests and their enthusiasm for us is everything!”
Sonya, who bartends in a Tacoma-area pub, hopes people remember: “That taking care of our guests is our top job, we still love doing it, and we’re doing the best we can. Most nights I’m the only one out front taking orders, pouring drinks, and running the drinks. I get some help from the cooks when they’re not busy cooking with running food and bussing tables. Patience, understanding, and cooperation goes a long way, frustration and complaining slows everything down for everyone.”
Staffing is the top challenge for Carlo, a line cook from Federal Way. “Before COVID our line usually had six of us working, these days it two or three, sometimes just me,” he says. “I hate to see orders that take 30 minutes or more to come out, but we’re doing the best we can! We had to shrink our menu quite a bit to be able to keep up.”
Behind the scenes, HR managers like Mackenzie are working hard to fill available spots. “Training new people not only takes time but requires attention that’s hard to devote while my veteran staff is already overextended,” she explains. “One of my biggest worries is whether I’m giving my new people everything they need to be off to a good, positive start of hopefully a long and fulfilling tenure with us.”
Everyone interviewed suggested remaining mindful and patient when you venture out to that neighborhood hot spot. Be as empathetic as you can with delays and inconsistencies and remember that disappointments don’t always need to be shared publicly or online: give them a chance to make it right and exceed your expectations.
Summer 2021 hints at a gradual return to normalcy. Everyone can do their part to keep restaurant dining safe, peaceful, and appreciated. If 2020 taught us anything it’s that progress is slow and uneven. Eat out but be patient, tip generously, and take a minute to thank restaurant staff for all they do. We’re all in this together.