Restaurants are reopening, and that’s a good thing. As diners, getting to eat in a restaurant again marks a milestone, a return to some version of pre-pandemic life. But restaurant owners are faced with a new challenge. After 16 months of constant pivoting to ensure safety for guests and diners, devising creative solutions to keep their businesses afloat and workers employed, and weathering lower volume even as things reopen, restaurant owners’ biggest hurdle yet might be navigating a labor shortage to find staff.
In a recent article, the Washington Post laid out a bleak forecast for the restaurant industry: “The industry has 1.7 million fewer jobs filled than before the pandemic, despite posting almost a million job openings in March, along with hotels, and raising pay 3.6 percent, an average of 58 cents an hour, in the first three months of 2021.”
So, what’s the cause? Many restaurant owners are quick to cite extended unemployment benefits as the cause. But that’s only part of the picture.
“It’s not just about unemployment benefits,” says Aaron Deal, founder of the founder of Deal & Associates Restaurant Consulting. “The labor issue was a problem before the pandemic started. Now it’s even more of a challenge because you’re not just looking for one employee, you’re looking for five. I think that we will have this challenge through the fall.”
This points to the impact of an industry-wide reckoning, where inequities in wages, worker treatment, and safety have been brought to the forefront. A recent Eater story explores the myth of ‘No One Wants to Work,’ which underscores that, for employees, it’s really more about demanding better wages and work environments in which they feel safe. In other words, the reward has to outweigh the risk.
To get a sense of what it’s like for an independent restaurateur reopening their business, finding and retaining staff, and finding a new baseline for ‘normal,’ we spoke with Ian Boden, executive chef and owner of The Shack in Staunton, Virginia.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Do you think that unemployment benefits are partly to blame for the perceived labor shortage?
I do. I hate to say it because there are a lot of people who need the assistance. But there are also a lot of people taking advantage of the system. I’ve had a couple experiences over the last year where there was work to be had but staff didn’t want to come back, even though contact was minimal and staff was vaccinated. Even if unemployment doesn’t pay the same as what you’d make working, you’re still getting money for nothing. But it’s not cut and dry.
What do you think is really at the crux of the labor issue?
The best example I can come up with is a juxtaposition of where the industry is now versus where it was when I was coming up. I moved to New York when I was 17 or 18 to start cooking. The job I got, there was a line of six people behind me. There were 100 cooks for one job; now there’s 100 jobs for one cook. Everyone is in such dire need of hands that they can do whatever they want and not deal with the consequences. When we were young—and I’m not saying it’s the right thing—but you could get blacklisted. I was raised to take pride in my work, and I just don’t think that exists with everyone anymore.
I know we trash millennials all the time, but I think they might have it more figured out than our generation. They understand that there’s more to life than work. And that’s just not how I came up. Work was my everything. It was my safe place, it was somewhere where I had iota of control, and there’s instant gratification in it.
Tell me a little bit about what reopening has looked like for you?
The brutal truth is that reopening was scary as shit. First off, the safety of my staff and our guests are of the utmost importance, so I was very weary to reopen. But we all managed to get vaccinated prior to opening. We ended up opening two or three weeks prior to our second round of PPP running out, so not having to worry about payroll was huge.
The restaurant looks completely different. Our full capacity is 26 people and we opened up with 12 seats. We went from prix-fixe encouraged menu to a tasting menu only. We are a destination restaurant so about 60 to 80% of our business comes from out of Staunton, but I was worried about alienating my local clientele.
What other operational changes have you made?
We also raised prices. We’re doing a four- and five-course tasting menus; we started at $65 and $75 and then increased it to $70 and $80, with optional wine pairings. To do the wine pairings, we had to get a wine preservation system, buy new wine glasses, and rebuild our wine list. That’s a lot of initial expense.
We’re also only doing two seatings a night, an early and a late seating, and are open three nights instead of six. That experience was awesome for all of us. We only have ten dishes on the menu, plus an amuse-bouche and petit fours, so we really get to focus on everything we’re doing in a big way. What we found doing two seatings is that the stress on the kitchen and the front of house was completely alleviated. My staff is making more money than they were when we were in our previous incarnation. The restaurant is doing better financially better because we control our food costs a lot tighter. We can give better service and we have a happier staff. Obviously, it’s a restaurant so things still get stressful but it’s not like it was.
It’s interesting how these tweaks were born out of a really stressful situation but how much better your staff and operation is for it.
The truth is, I’m 43 years old. I’ve been doing this since I was 13. Luckily, my wife is supportive, but the business puts stress on our relationship. It’s time for me to refocus and learn what it’s like to be a regular human being as well as a chef. Now, what that is I don’t know. But it’s time to start learning.
My priority has always been my staff. When staff has any family issues I’ll work twice as much as I have to, to make sure staff gets the time that they need. This [new set-up] makes it a lot easier to do that. Another thing we did was increase the hourly rate of all of our front of house staff. I watched what happened when we closed down and I watched the fear in all their eyes, because they all had bills to pay. This was before the new unemployment benefits kicked in. They were so ill-prepared for it, and that really scared me.
There was a short period of time when we were doing takeout only and all my front of house staff went from $2.13 per hour to $10 per hour, because they weren’t making any money, at all. Now they’re getting $6 an hour, but they’re making anywhere between $300 and $700 a week in tips.
What about your back of house staff?
That hasn’t all shaken out 100% yet. I kept my sous chef on and kept his salary the same; it was the right thing to do. Because of the way unemployment was working, my wife and I could have drawn unemployment as business owners. My personal financial situation would’ve been much better if we just stayed closed. But my staff needed us, so we opened.
My sous chef has been with me through all this, but his last day was last Saturday. I’m hiring a chef de cuisine instead of a sous chef because I’m trying to give myself more of a life. He’s coming on at a higher rate than I’ve ever paid anybody. Even my dishwashers. The median household income in the county here is a little over $25,000 a year. I’m paying a dishwasher $10 per hour and then they’re getting a percentage of floor tips.
So, you have a tip pooling model?
Yes. We’re too small a restaurant; there’s no such thing as “it’s not my job.” There’s no distinction between front of house and back of house. It’s hard to keep a dishwasher. So, they’re making an extra $100-plus in three days on tips; it encourages them to work harder and to stay around. We actually lucked out; we have a husband-wife team from El Salvador that’s working with us right now.
It sounds like the culture in your restaurant is one where there isn’t a divide between back of house and front of house. There isn’t the same wage disparity.
There’s still a wage discrepancy because back of house doesn’t make what the front of house does. But I don’t know how I can ever fix that. The only thing I can think of is to switch everyone to hourly and do a complete tipped house. But the payroll taxes will kill us if I have to pay $20 an hour. Unless they do away with the tipped tax credit in Virginia, there’s just no way to do it.
Not to get political, but the only option is for the federal government to incentivize paying staff better. If they would help us with taxes to pay our staff better, then I think the unemployment would—not disappear—but it’d be crazy low, and it would save the local governments a ton of money.
What is the cost of increasing wages? I think what the average diner doesn’t realize…
They have to pay for it. There’s no black and white when it comes to the livable wage and the [hourly wage] increases. I’m tired of hearing that chef-owners are bad people, that we’re responsible for paying a livable wage. Also, the livable wage in New York City is not the same as a livable wage in Staunton.
It’s all cumulative. So, if have to pay my dishwasher $15 an hour, that means that my sous chef has to be making $65,000, which means that my chef de cuisine has to be making $80,000 a year. I have a 22-seat restaurant. What the public doesn’t understand is—they keep touting increasing the minimum wag, which I totally agree with—but I’m not rich. Someone has to pay for it. Food in restaurants is too cheap already. You still hear people say, ‘oh this place is expensive,’ but they’re the same people who say that $15 an hour still isn’t a livable wage.
And there are things that people don’t think about that we have to pay for on daily basis. Gloves are a fortune. Our water bill, gas bill…everything’s higher. Even fast-food restaurants increase their prices by 1.25% annually, but that doesn’t keep up with the cost of goods. Restaurants like mine—how often do we raise prices? I’ve been open seven years and raised prices three times.
Did you consider not reopening your restaurant this last year?
Of course. And I still consider it, to be honest. By the time The Shack is ten years old, if there are certain things that I don’t see lining up, I’ll close. And ten years is a good fucking run.
Can you spell out what has to line up for you to keep going?
It has to do with my quality of life, my wife’s quality of life. It’s a lot about staff retention. I think we have a good culture here. And the way we maintain that is by supporting our staff as much as we can. I actually took a few years off cooking because I was looking at the chefs who I was working for in the early 2000’s and I was like ‘you know what, I don’t want to be those guys.’ They were miserable, they were beaten, and they were broke. I think all our ideas of what success is has changed. Financial success is great. But there’s more.
Layla Khoury-Hanold is a freelance journalist covering food, travel, and lifestyle stories. Her work has appeared online with Food Network, Refinery29, the Chicago Tribune, and the James Beard Foundation, and in print with Drinks International, Our State, The Roanoker, and INDY Week. Follow her writing and food adventures on Instagram @words_with_layla.