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As restaurants across Richmond reopen, a new crisis is emerging: staffing. Bad customers are part of the problem.
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As restaurants across Richmond reopen, a new crisis is emerging: staffing. Bad customers are part of the problem.

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RTD restaurant reporter Karri Peifer brings back her video series to talk about the biggest challenge facing restaurants right now: staffing.

It’s been a very long year for the restaurant industry.

Dining room shutdowns, reduced seating, loss of sales, concept pivots, enhanced cleaning protocols, mask and temperature check mandates, reduced hours and disposable menus are just a few of the challenges restaurant owners and workers have had to contend with this past year — and continue to navigate today.

And now as vaccinations are on the rise and fully reopening without restrictions seems to be in sight, restaurants across the country and here at home are faced with a new crisis: staffing.

There are nearly 5,000 open restaurant jobs in the Richmond region right now — everything from fast-food workers, dishwashers, cooks, servers and hosts to bartenders, bakers, restaurant managers and delivery drivers. If it’s connected to the preparation or service of food — or the logistics of the daily operation of a restaurant — there seems to be a job opening in Richmond, according to data from Chmura Economics & Analytics, a consulting firm based in Richmond.

“Folks are really struggling to get staff on board,” said Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, which represents about 1,500 restaurants in the state. Staffing, he said, is “the biggest challenge for operators right now.”

There are a combination of factors contributing to restaurants’ staffing challenges, Terry said: “A big part of it is vaccine. Extended unemployment benefits, and quite a few people left the industry.” And restaurant workers juggle the same challenges as any other type of workers: kids at home for virtual school, lack of child care options and fear of contracting COVID-19, he added.

Even though workers may be staying home, diners aren’t — at least not anymore.

Terry said business is up — everywhere as far as he’s heard from restaurant operators across the state — and has been since the beginning of March as increased vaccinations, spring weather and a long year of everyone being shut inside has translated into pent-up demand for dining out.

And many Richmond restaurant owners report the same: Customers are ready to dine-in again — on patios, inside dining rooms and even for private parties in private rooms. But most owners can’t find enough staffing to accommodate the demand, much less expand their hours back to anything near pre-pandemic times.

“We aren’t open back to our pre-COVID hours anywhere and can’t seem to staff enough to even be open seven days a week at some of them,” said Michelle Williams, co-owner of the Richmond Restaurant Group, which owns and operates multiple restaurants in Richmond and the surrounding counties, including both locations of The Daily Kitchen and Bar and The Hard Shell.

All seven of Williams’ Richmond-area restaurants are hiring for nearly every type of position and can’t find workers for any of them.

“And I think we pay at the top of independent restaurants. With places coming back online, it’s making a bad situation worse,” she said.

Williams’ staffing challenges are echoed by restaurant operators all over Richmond. Everyone seems to be hiring — and struggling to fill positions needed to even operate at their current, reduced capacity.

“Almost every day last week, we had to stop our reservations and stop walk-ins because we don’t have the bodies to accommodate the demand,” said Bobby Kruger, who co-owns the Brambly Park restaurant and winery in Scott’s Addition.

And according to data from the National Restaurant Association, there are actually fewer restaurants today than there were a year ago.

Terry estimates that more than 20% of Virginia restaurants have closed during the pandemic and won’t reopen. In Virginia — in just the full-service category — that translates into more than 2,000 fewer restaurants. Full-service restaurants — that is, restaurants that rely on servers, bartenders and hosts for staffing, as opposed to fast-food restaurants — are the largest share of restaurants in the state (65% of all restaurants, according to the restaurant group’s data).

***

There’s another factor that has kept some restaurant workers at home, or pushed them out of the industry entirely, according to Terry and others: The work of enforcing COVID-19 restrictions inside restaurants, including the contentious statewide mask mandate, fell largely to restaurant workers.

“Reopening restaurants during a global pandemic was soul-crushing,” said Lindsey Scheer, a longtime Richmond restaurant worker who has managed the bars at some of the hottest restaurants in town, most recently the Fan District’s Heritage, where she served as general manager until the restaurant shuttered in July to wait out the pandemic.

“We were in the business of hospitality, but we were forced to be security guards, sanitation experts and punching bags for guests who didn’t value our lives enough to simply wear a mask while talking to you,” Scheer said.

Mask-wearing to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus has been recommended by health experts for most of the past year, but mask opponents have been vocal and at times volatile about the policies, which puts restaurant workers in difficult and potentially dangerous situations.

In the past year, media reports of restaurant workers being verbally and physically assaulted by customers upset about COVID-related policies came out of nearly every state in the nation.

In North Carolina, a worker was spit at and kicked by a customer who didn’t want to wear a mask. In Northern Virginia, there was more spitting and cursing over the policy, according to news reports.

In Texas in May, a fast-food manager was stabbed three times over the request. In New Jersey late last month, when a woman working at a Burger King asked a customer to put one on, he “wrapped both hands around her neck and began strangling her,” according to police there.

A teenager in Louisiana was hospitalized in August after telling a large party they couldn’t all sit together due to COVID-19 restrictions. Three of the customers responded by beating her, yanking out part of her hair and hitting her in the face with a “Wet Floor” sign, according to media reports.

In response to some of these reports, ServSafe, a 100-year-old restaurant safety training company that traditionally focuses on food safety classes, in September added a “Conflict De-escalation” course, designed to train restaurant workers to deal with customers who are upset about COVID-related requirements, especially mask-wearing.

The 10-minute online course teaches workers to watch for physical signs of escalating anger, such as “clenched fists or jaws, a puffed-out chest,” telling workers to give these people more physical space, while continuing to calmly explain the mask policy. It also recommends staying engaged with the customer, because ignoring them or walking away could further agitate the prospective diner.

If every effort at de-escalation fails, the course says, law enforcement may need to be called, or a restaurant may simply decide to allow the diner to stay and dine without a mask. In Virginia, though, restaurants that don’t enforce COVID requirements, including the wearing of masks, risk possible fines and the loss of their license to operate.

“The industry took one of the biggest hits while getting some of the most hatred,” said Megan Stimpson, a Richmond restaurant worker for the past 21 years until spring 2020 when the restaurant where she served as manager, Metro Grill in the Fan District, closed for good due to COVID-19.

And mask-wearing wasn’t the only state-mandated requirement restaurants have to adhere to. When indoor dining came back in summer 2020, it came with a list of nearly 30 requirements — plus a dozen recommended tasks — for restaurants and restaurant workers to adhere to, including hourly enhanced cleaning protocols, the removal of tabletop condiments, the use of disposable or electronic menus, and keeping at least 6 feet of distance between tables.

These protocols were created to keep patrons and workers safe. However, restaurant staffers had to deal with complaints about these, too — or at the other end of the spectrum, criticisms about perceived failures to adhere to the requirements appropriately.

Stimpson cited mask-wearing as the most frequent issue she and her industry colleagues had to deal with the past year. But there were also complaints about wait times as kitchens struggled to accommodate the massive increase in takeout orders or issues with customers trying to get around restrictions by booking two smaller parties at similar times, then asking to sit together, despite capacity limits on tables.

In some cases, customers tried to move tables to better accommodate their parties — and put restaurants out of compliance in doing so. In winter, some diners dressed inappropriately for cold weather, moved patio heaters, and burned holes in restaurants’ tents.

“When you have customers fighting about masks and thinking they can cheat the 10-person limit by splitting their parties across multiple tables, while also saying the service industry doesn’t deserve tips. Why would we risk our health for people who think so little of us?” Stimpson said.

For Scheer and Stimpson, it’s hard not to tie the fear of contracting COVID-19 and the added stress of attempting to enforce public health policy to restaurants’ current struggle to find staffing.

“I can’t explain how hard it is to have to lie to a guest when they ask if you’re ‘excited to be back open,’” Scheer said. “No, we’re not excited. We are horrified and frightened, but have to smile and act happy to make those tips.”

***

Staffing challenges aren’t new to Richmond restaurants. The decadelong explosion of eateries across the city has meant restaurant owners are familiar with the struggle to find staff, but in the past the challenge was usually for kitchen help.

“It’s always been tough for the past five to 10 years for line cooks,” said Kruger, of Brambly Park. Many industry workers prefer front-of-the-house jobs, waiting tables or bartending where the money is better and “frankly, the work is easier,” he said.

What’s new today is the struggle to find front-of-the-house workers, including bartenders — often considered the most prized front-of-the-house restaurant job with lucrative tips and a usually enjoyable shift of bantering back and forth with bar customers, Kruger said.

“What’s going on right now is unprecedented. It’s hard to find quality bartenders right now. Two years ago, I was beating bartenders away with a stick,” he said.

Kruger attributed people leaving the industry and enhanced unemployment benefits as factors in restaurants’ staffing struggle — plus the increased competition of everyone trying to hire at once. And he added another one: The work has changed — especially for bartenders, as the continued closure of bars means no customer engagement. The job has been whittled down to the rote mixing of cocktails and opening of beer bottles.

And that’s true for many positions in full-service restaurants. Chefs and cooks who labored over plating entrees spent the past year cramming burgers into boxes. Servers who delighted in suggesting wine pairings were repurposed to hustle to-go bags out to the curb and into waiting, open trunks. And for many tipped employees, all of it was done for less money, as there were fewer customers overall and lower check averages than with dine-in.

And Kruger pointed out the simple math of unemployment benefits right now: Most of the people he’s talked to are receiving the maximum state benefit of $378 a week, plus $300 a week from the extended federal benefits, which works out to $678 a week or about $17 an hour pre-tax for a 40-hour workweek. That would be about $35,000 a year if the benefits were steady.

The average pay for restaurant jobs in the Richmond region, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $20,400 for fast-food workers; $24,900 for restaurant cooks; $21,500 for restaurant hostess; $20,200 for dishwashers; $28,500 for bakers. On Lindsey’s List, a Facebook group Scheer started in 2015 that is dedicated to local jobs and housing, there are dozens of posts a week of restaurants in need of workers. The pay average there on posts for kitchen workers is $12 to $16 an hour for a 30-hour workweek — or $360 to $480 a week. Someone earning $400 a week makes $20,800 in a year.

Kruger — and many in the industry — don’t anticipate the staffing situation getting better as long as unemployment benefits pay more than workers can make on the job.

And some restaurant operators aren’t waiting around for the extended benefits to expire in the fall to lure workers back. Some are paying more now.

Darden Restaurants Inc., the parent company of Olive Garden, recently announced across-the-board pay increases for all its workers — tipped or not — to bring them up to at least $10 an hour now and $12 by January 2023. Some Applebee’s restaurants are offering $3,000 bonuses for referrals for some positions, and some Arby’s locations are paying $500 in bonuses for referrals, according to a recent Bloomberg report. And in Richmond, on the jobs board Scheer started six years ago, pay rates seem to be inching up in those postings.

“For better or worse, Lindsey’s List is a place where you can clearly see that rent has skyrocketed while hourly job rates have stayed low, and it’s all right there in the same feed as proof,” Scheer said. “People are demanding transparency with compensation for their time, and they’re not wrong for wanting that. There have been a lot of folks directly challenging low wages and unsafe COVID practices on social media.”

***

COVID-19 wasn’t the only thing that dominated the news cycle in 2020. As demonstrations broke out in Richmond and across the country last summer in response to the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, many in the restaurant industry saw parallels in the fight for racial and social justice to their own careers and treatment.

“Many people had a lot of extra time on their hands in 2020 to think about the many injustices of the world, and that included chats about livable wages,” Scheer said. “A lot of people in the service industry didn’t feel supported or safe in their previous jobs and aren’t willing to put their lives on the line for low, inconsistent wages.”

Scheer acknowledged that increased unemployment benefits are a factor in some employees’ hesitancy to return to work, but for many in the industry — those who haven’t left or did and want to come back, they want the conversation now to be about fair wages and fair treatment.

“Front-of-house staff can work at the same restaurant for a decade and never get a raise above $2.13 an hour, which in many cases doesn’t even cover their federal and state taxes. It’s also time to start looking at adjusting wage equity between the front and back of house,” Scheer said. “Are owners ready to pay their staff and managers what they’re worth, specifically without relying on tips? When are restaurants going to start providing their staffs with health care? Is Richmond ready to have service fees included with checks to help create livable wages?”

Sarah Gaskin is someone who spent nearly 30 years in the Richmond restaurant industry, most often working as a server, but for much of the last decade, she was at Pasture and Comfort, serving as general manager until each of the restaurants closed pre-COVID.

When Comfort closed in January 2020, Gaskin’s plan was to take a break — maybe travel some — and possibly stay out of the restaurant industry for good. The pandemic, she said, helped solidify that plan. With her travel plans on hold, Gaskin had the option to go back to work in restaurants. She opted against it.

“It’s not a healthy business,” Gaskin said. “It’s not healthy for sleep patterns because you work different shifts all the time; it’s hard to make plans because you don’t know if you’re going to have to work two hours later than you thought.”

But mostly, Gaskin said, restaurant work is unhealthy because of the stress some customers cause people who work in restaurants by treating them like they’re less than human.

“You expect people to be decent, and sometime they aren’t,” she said. “It’s very disappointing.”

Bad customers are nothing new for anyone who works in public-facing jobs, but restaurant workers have long inspired a level of consumer passion not seen in other industries. And with the proliferation of online review sites in the past decade, badly behaved customers have more options than ever to take their frustrations out on restaurants and restaurant workers.

“A few bad apples can ruin the experience,” Gaskin said. “The stress is crazy. One person can ruin your whole night and then go home and write a review and ruin your whole week.”

In fact, a quick search of the online review site Yelp shows that The Daily — one of Williams’ restaurants that she’s struggling to staff for — recently received a one-star review for not being back to its full hours. (It’s not open for weekday breakfast hours — and, the reviewer noted, a nearby, unaffiliated parking lot recently increased its rate.) Another recent one-star review was given because a server “back-talked” to the customers by pointing out that a menu item she ordered didn’t exist. (It didn’t.)

Kruger’s restaurant, Brambly Park, got a one-star review last month for failing to put together St. Patrick’s Day festivities when it never planned to. It did for Easter Sunday — a family-friendly, socially distanced egg hunt — which resulted in one woman, feeling she had to wait too long to hunt for eggs, screaming at staff so passionately that another diner intervened, Kruger said.

Negative online reviews became so common during the pandemic that in late May, Yelp — the biggest online review site — wrote a blog post urging users to be “empathetic and patient with businesses” as restaurants specifically had to change their business models so dramatically due to COVID-19 that longer wait times, changed hours and limited menus should be expected.

“People are usually happy,” Kruger said, “until something goes wrong — or they think something goes wrong. The staff bears the brunt of the behavior. People literally just straight up throw tantrums.”

Gaskin can still recall many of the horrible customers she had to deal with as part of her daily work — experiences likely familiar to anyone who’s worked in public-facing jobs: customers shouting at her, waving her down, whistling across a room to get her attention. People who demanded another table and refused to accept restaurant management’s justification that a table was reserved for another party. Customers who moved the tables or seats to better accommodate themselves. Nonstop requests to change the music. Customers who adjusted the thermostat more to their liking.

“The entitlement is kind of amazing,” Gaskin said. “You’re the service industry. ... You sometimes have to suck it up and let people have their way to prevent a scene.”

***

Gaskin reiterated that she was speaking of some diners, not all. But it’s enough. Throw in a pandemic, restaurants operating on ever-changing business models and health requirements, the loss of hours and wages that came with it, and the very real fear of contracting COVID-19, and Gaskin said she understands why some people have left the industry.

“I don’t want to get the impression that I didn’t love it — I did. But I wouldn’t want to go back now. And I understand why others don’t, too,” she said.

And after two decades, Stimpson said she’s out, too — for now. She has an autoimmune disorder that puts her in a higher-risk category if she gets COVID-19. So for her, the risk is too great.

“Not to mention I haven’t seen my unemployment money for eight months. I wanna go back to work, the industry has just changed for me because of this pandemic, so I have to pivot my career now,” she said. She’s actively looking for work she can do from home.

These days, Gaskin can be found in her new field — dog walking — which is an extension of a lifelong passion she’s had for animals. And it’s a paid role that complements the decades she’s spent volunteering with various animal rescue organizations.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s some of the things I like about restaurant work” like moving around and keeping busy. The gig also allows her to expand her volunteerism since she’s now available evenings and weekends. She’s also been helping out with food distribution for those in need through Mutual Aid.

Scheer, too, has spent some of her time over the past year giving back to her community by working with the Richmond chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild.

“In the past, we’ve focused heavily on career-specific trainings, but this year we’ve offered our service industry friends free virtual classes on gardening, physical health, economics and finance, as well as providing meals and produce packages for local front- and back-of-house workers,” she said.

For work, Scheer picked up three jobs — nannying during the day and working part time at Longoven restaurant in Scott’s Addition, plus “helping out The Broadberry Entertainment Group with their outdoor pod and driveup concerts.”

“Everything I’m qualified to do as an adult didn’t really exist in 2020,” she said. “I think the Richmond restaurant industry is going to look vastly different moving forward. Many of our hospitality professionals have been re-evaluating their careers after the past year and making changes. The hospitality in this town is really something special, and sadly, there will be a lot of our Richmond restaurant industry familiar faces missing moving forward.”

Still, Scheer said, she sees hope.

“It was such a relief that things were moving in the right direction when the health department bumped food services workers to 1b,” Scheer said of the change in vaccination eligibility that was made by the Richmond and Henrico health districts on March 8. “We’ve been out here for a year, within inches of unmasked diners, and our lives finally feel valued.”

The March 8 move means the first wave of Richmond restaurant workers can expect to be fully vaccinated by mid-April. The rest — depending on the locality they live in, which shot they received and how quickly they could get an appointment — are expected to be fully vaccinated by early summer.

Until then, Kruger has a recommendation for everyone, especially diners, as restaurants attempt to keep up with the increased demand without the extra staff. It’s his new favorite saying, he said, and stolen fully from the customer who intervened with the upset diner on Brambly Park’s behalf on Easter Sunday: “Let’s all have a little grace for each other.”

kpeifer@richmond.com

(804) 649-6321

Twitter: @KarriPeifer

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