Patio season is upon us, COVID-19 vaccinations are more prevalent and demand for onsite restaurant meals is on the rise. Increasing openness to indoor dining is surely a welcome sign among Oak Park restaurant owners, but new and unexpected labor shortages are plaguing eateries as they emerge from the pandemic.

It appears no type of establishment is immune to this challenge. Bakeries, brew pubs, breakfast spots and white tablecloth establishments are all facing staffing shortages making it surprisingly difficult to meet growing demand.

“This is a national problem,” said Patrick O’Brien, chef-owner of Scratch Restaurant Group including Scratch on Lake, 733 Lake St. “The pandemic put a lot of restaurant workers on unemployment for the first time. Now that they are using it many people have decided to stay home and collect.”

O’Brien shifted from offering more traditional hourly wages to salary in hopes of attracting applicants, but even ads placed for positions capable of generating more than $40,000 annually through salary and tips failed to lure applicants.

The lack of staff adversely impacts restaurants in myriad ways, but reputation cost is among the most significant. Being understaffed often translates to slower service and restauranteurs like O’Brien worry about disgruntled customers and negative reviews.

“Fortunately, people are coming out to eat and we are busy, but I need more than three servers in the dining room to provide adequate service.” said O’Brien. “This problem won’t end until unemployment ends.”

Meg (left) and Molly Svec of Spilt Milk hope strict COVID protocols help cultivate trust with industry workers who may be reluctant to return to work.

Meg and Molly Svec, co-owners of Spilt Milk Pastry, 811 South Blvd., have been experiencing hiring challenges as well, but in their case find they are limited to shortages of front-of-house workers. A recent posting for a barista position yielded just two applicants; a similar posting pre-pandemic would have attracted approximately 100 applicants. Spilt Milk, however, has not had difficulty finding people to work in the kitchen. As a result, the Svec sisters cannot imagine it is just the allure of unemployment benefits holding people back from re-entering the work force.

“I don’t like the idea of blaming unemployment because it paints restaurant workers as lazy,” said Meg Svec. “And that just isn’t the case. Restaurant workers are not lazy people.”

The Svec sisters know many front-of-house restaurant workers who found themselves in environments that lacked COVID related safety protocols. They speculate a lack of consistency in safety standards from restaurant-to-restaurant has made it difficult for workers to trust they will be protected in a new environment. This fear would likely impact waitstaff, bussers and bartenders more seriously as they interact with the public far more than cooks and dishwashers. The Svec sisters hope communicating their strict COVID protocols with potential employees will help build trust.

Kristin Alfonsi, co-owner of One Lake Brewing, 1 Lake St., delayed the return of indoor dining until her entire staff was fully vaccinated against COVID-19. While she achieved that goal, staff shortages have made reopening One Lake’s indoor dining rooms nearly impossible

“We are opening for limited indoor dining on the first floor on May 1,” said Alfonsi. “Unfortunately, we cannot increase our hours or open the middle level without more staff.”

Alfonsi agrees unemployment benefits are a contributing factor, but also believes the industry is still waiting to catch up with vaccine roll-out. As more restaurant workers become fully vaccinated and added unemployment benefits expire in September, Alfonsi expects to see a wave of applications.

In the meantime, One Lake’s lower level has been redesigned to function without servers. While the full menu will be offered on the lower level all food and drink orders will be placed and picked up from the bar. The rooftop will still operate as a full-service space and the mid-level will open as more workers join the One Lake team.

Josemanuel Lopez (left) and his father, Chef Paco, co-owners of New Rebozo are dealing with the complexities of the labor shortage in the restaurant industry.

Josemanuel Lopez and his father Francisco, known to all as Chef Paco, co-owners of New Rebozo, 1116 Madison St., have given tremendous thought to the industry wide need for qualified waitstaff and kitchen workers.

“Sure, unemployment benefits factor into the problem,” said Lopez. “But there are also too many openings and workers have the ability to shop around for ideal hours and pay.”

Chef Paco and his son are clear the struggle is about more than money. New Rebozo already pays their kitchen workers $15 per hour. Front-of-house waitstaff earn $13 per hour plus tips far exceeding the Illinois minimum wage for tipped workers of $6.60 per hour and the slightly higher Chicago rate of $8.40 per hour. Still, New Rebozo is relying on extended family to keep the restaurant operating.

“Even with higher wages two of our 10 employees had more than one job. When restaurant workers are paid lower wages, it is common for them to have two or three jobs to make ends meet,” said Lopez. “Relying on unemployment benefits to ease the burden of having to work so many hours during a dangerous pandemic makes sense to me.”

New Rebozo took COVID compliance very seriously and put their staff first in terms of social distancing and reopening their dining room.  Throughout the pandemic New Rebozo only dealt with a single case of mild COVID among staff members.

“When we had the COVID case we sent our staff home, closed for an extended period and did a deep cleaning,” said Lopez. “But I know of another local establishment where 90% of the staff came down with COVID and they were all told to come back to work. That inconsistency does play in the reluctance to return to work.”

Lopez also noted dining room capacity restrictions are making it difficult for waitstaff to make enough in tips to make it worthwhile. At 50% capacity a restaurant needs to turn tables four times every night to give servers the same number of tables they had access to when the restaurant was filled to capacity. While customer hesitancy is waning, Lopez indicates dine in business is not that robust.

Lopez and his father have also seen employees relocate, take jobs in a different industry, find more hours at another restaurant, or even opt to make do with less income for safety reasons. Pre-pandemic New Rebozo always had a full staff and now, of the seven potential employees they have brought in only one has stayed.

“The truth is we cannot pinpoint the reasons for the shortage because this has never happened before,” said Lopez. “People made a good living here if they put in a little bit of effort. I think that can still be true.”

Join the discussion on social media!