Raise your hand if you were part of the crowd out-of-your-mind irate because the government was too busy handing out free money while there were plenty of available jobs out there.
Too often during the Spring and early Summer, restaurants across the country were flummoxed by the inability to find quality help. Heck, some of them would have settled for not quality help. Any kind of help was needed. It still is.
As the news cycle raged about the need to discontinue unemployment benefits to that alleged ‘lazy’ crowd that was sitting at home getting paid to do nothing, a lot of workers in the food and beverage industry were making their voices heard. They said unemployment benefits weren’t enough to live on. They were just tired of being overworked and underpaid.
Right or wrong, it’s how they felt. A lot of them will tell you it’s how they continue to feel.
“I think a lot of the people who have worked in kitchens for years have decided to go do something else.” Is how one local chef in charge of a few dozen people put it. “$1,000 signing bonuses aren’t working.”
He isn’t alone in that sentiment.
Governor Brian Kemp cut off federal unemployment supplements on June 26. It is unrealistic to think that restaurants continue to struggle to find help 6 weeks later because of all that government money everyone was shoving into their mattresses. Yet the landscape remains pretty bad out there.
Several restaurants, most notably Tubby’s in Thunderbolt, have been forced to close their doors in the last 2-3 weeks because they don’t have enough bodies to run their restaurants. Downtown Savannah’s Alley Cat Lounge spent nearly a week in ‘day to day’ status.
Black Rabbit Sandwich Shop and bar on Barnard Street spent a few days cutting off food service at 5pm. The incredibly popular Rocky’s of Savannah NY Deli in Sandfly had to pull the plug on lunch service one day last week because they didn’t have enough staff to pull it all off. “Breakfast Only” that day.
That’s just a few. There are many more.
So what gives? As was the case before the state cut off the free flow of money, the answers, well, are complicated. But it largely begins with a smaller labor pool to begin with.
On a weekly basis I’m hearing stories of restaurants losing staffers to competitors because those workers are getting hourly wages north of $20 an hour. To do the same thing they were doing for $14 an hour before last year’s shut down. The problem there? Not everyone can afford $23 an hour for a cook. Not without passing those costs on to you.
A $26 burger? Not too many of you would stand for that. And they know it.
“$25 an hour for a cook is unsustainable.” Is how one owner put it to me. “Even if we can afford it now when Summer business is great, there is no way we can afford that in the winter when we have a fraction of the business coming in the front door.”
All of this, to say nothing of the recent spike in COVID cases that has crippled the industry as well. Restaurants that were already short staffed now have to send employees who test positive home. I know of one restaurant that had three within 4 days.
“We’ve got to find a way to make it work.” That restaurant’s owner told me 2 weeks ago. “We’ve got 2 caterings this week. One is a wedding and a book full of reservations. We will figure it out.”
It’s a certifiable mess right now. The lack of people to drive supply trucks for both food and drink is compounding the problem everywhere too. One restaurant General Manager told me he is having trouble getting tequila in a timely fashion. Champagne is next to impossible.
Right now everyone has a story. Very few of them good.
This column? The tip of the iceberg. But it would be pretty unfair of me to leave you with the impression that the industry is failing. Not even close.
The silver lining is the fact that your favorite restaurants are making it work behind the curtain. I’ve been eating all over town all summer and I have yet to have a bad experience. Same for the people I’ve talked to who have been eating and liking all over Savannah. I’ve been told countless stories of life in the trenches these days, but for the most part, you’d really never know it.
It may take months to see something more resembling normal, but in the meantime, you can feel comfortable supporting them all. They deserve it, maybe now more than ever.