‘There’s nobody’: Tallahassee restaurants struggle to fill jobs amid nationwide labor crunch

From the Tallahassee Democrat

When Z. Bardhi’s Italian Cuisine needed to hire, it typically had a list of eligible workers to chose from within a week.

But since the beginning of the pandemic, hiring has become its main challenge causing the high-end Italian restaurant to close Mondays and Tuesdays to give its downsized staff two days off, according to owner Zeke Bardhi.

“We cannot do this,” Bardhi said to his family before deciding to close two days a week. “We are hurting our workers. They can’t work seven days a week.”

At 72, he came out of retirement to help his employees, including family members and longtime staffers.

Bardhi is not alone.

One look at a hiring website such as Indeed will provide a list of restaurants looking for workers, many recruiting for over a month. Experts say there are many factors to the staff shortage.

“A lot of my restaurant friends call me sometimes and we cry to each other like ‘What are we going to do?’ ” Bardhi said.

Another Tallahassee restaurant, The Blu Halo, needs three line cooks and has been advertising on websites like Zip Recruiter, Indeed and Craigslist for a month, costing about $800, said Andy Donato, the managing partner.

“I am getting zero results,” he said.

The high-end steakhouse even contracted its menu by 30% because of the staffing shortage.

Another restaurant that needs cooks and is having much more trouble finding qualified applicants is Kool Beanz Cafe. It’s been searching for two line cooks for six months.

“There’s nothing,” owner Keith Baxter said. “There’s nobody.”

On Sunday, the restaurant announced “the labor shortage in the hospitality is very real. Kool Beanz will be closed on Tuesdays until further notice. It’s that real!”

Why are there no applicants?

Understaffed restaurants are not limited to Tallahassee: It’s happening across Florida and the nation.

“It is the most pressing issue we have right now,” said Geoff Luebkemann, the senior vice president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Luebkemann said the main factor seems to be the competing nature between restaurant wages and unemployment benefits.

Florida’s unemployment benefits are $275 a week and people receive an additional $300 a week from the federal government.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is reinstituting the requirement for benefit seekers to show proof of job searches by the end of May. When the requirement is back on the books, people will need to show proof of five job search attempts.

“Normally when you’re getting unemployment, the whole idea is that’s temporary, and you need to be looking for work to be able to get off unemployment,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “I think now we’re in just a different situation, you have a surplus of jobs, particularly in restaurant, lodging, hospitality, that people want to hire.”

Others counter that it has less to do with unemployment benefits and more to do with an industry that became high risk during the pandemic – one that often pays low wages and doesn’t offer health benefits.

About 40 million Americans have stopped working or looking for jobs the past year because they either fear contracting COVID-19, are caring for children or sick relatives, among other reasons, Labor Department figures show.

While the coronavirus devastated the restaurant and hospitality industries, others thrived. Grocery stores, delivery services, gig economy and warehouse jobs are among the industries that received a boost from the pandemic.

Luebkemann named these industries, pointing to specific companies like Publix and Amazon, as places people sought employment when their restaurant was forced to close.

Sue Dick, president of the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce, speaks with business owners on a daily basis and says she is well aware of the restaurant staff shortages.

Like Luebkemann, Dick says there is a “perfect storm” of factors contributing to the lack of job seekers in Florida.

She said people were frightened to return to a workplace where contact with strangers is necessary. Now that over 40% of Florida’s population has received at least one dose of a vaccine against COVID-19, jobs will hopefully get filled.

What can restaurant owners do?

Initiatives to get staff numbers back to where they were before the pandemic are not uncommon, and many are getting creative.

In April, a Tampa Bay McDonalds made headlines for offering people $50 just to interview for a job at the fast food chain.

But similar incentives are present in Florida’s capital.

Last week, the Apalachee Parkway Chili’s began offering a $100 sign-on bonus to fill a full-time cook and part-time serving positions. “It has been a struggle,” manager Brandon Benson said.

The Chili’s has been understaffed for months, Benson said, but the incentive seems to be working because he is setting up daily interviews.

Federal aid won’t assist staff shortages

On May 5, President Joe Biden proposed a plan to save restaurants and bars called the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Applications for financial aid from the more than $29 billion fund opened the same week.

Restaurants that apply at restaurants.sba.gov can expect a payment within two weeks of their application date, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a news conference.

The Blu Halo applied for aid, but was turned down because of the financial assistance it received in the past, Donato said.

Whether The Blu Halo received federal aid money, it would not help staffing shortages.

“If I got money, that wouldn’t help me,” Donato said. “Give me $10,000, that’s not going to help me find a cook.”

Z. Bardhi’s, Blu Halo, Kool Beanz and many Tallahassee restaurants will continue to look for staff despite the constricted applicant pool.

“I really don’t have an option,” Donato said about continuing costly advertisements.

Bardhi said he hopes the two days off each week will help his staff make it through until the next batch of hires.

“It’s pretty bad,” Bardhi said. “But we just love our workers. They are most important to us.”