Diners in distress

Labor shortages leave Savannah restaurants struggling with uptick in business

Restaurants have been put through the wringer for over a year. They’ve endured shutdowns, adjusted their service models, and watched with resignation as colleagues closed doors for good.

Things should be looking up now as vaccinations and warm weather inspire hope for a return to semi-normalcy. People are ready to go out. Business is booming. But restaurants are faced with a new pandemic of their own, not of biological origins but of workforce. There simply aren’t enough people willing to work in service anymore.

click to enlarge Customers enjoy the outdoor seating at the Crab Shack on Tybee Island. - PHOTO BY MELISSA HAYES
Photo by Melissa Hayes
Customers enjoy the outdoor seating at the Crab Shack on Tybee Island.
Spanky’s in Pooler has been forced to reduce their hours.

Sundown Lodge on Wilmington Island temporarily closed their doors. “We would like to apologize in advance,” wrote Savannah Taphouse on Facebook. “We are doing our best with the limited amount of loyal employees we do have.” “We are grateful for all of our staff that actually does come to work,” wrote Driftaway Cafe. “Please know we are trying our hardest with what we’re working with,” wrote Savannah Seafood Shack.

The problem is much larger than Savannah. From coast to coast, the Covid-battered service industry continues to limp along.

The worker-to-customer ratio is sharply off balance. Diners are getting frustrated. Service workers who remain are exhausted. Those who haven’t returned say they’re exhausted, too, and ready to move on. Long hours and low wages are service industry stereotypes. Throw in a pandemic and alternative options, and furloughed employees are choosing to keep their distance.

“I don’t know if anything will help until they stop getting their unemployment money,” said Jack Flanigan, owner of The Crab Shack. “That seems to be the big thing. But, people have also drifted away from the service industry to do other things now.”

The mega-restaurant reduced its staff of around 150 to “maybe four or five” who stayed behind to sell to-go meals after lockdown forced furloughs in March of last year. As the world slowly reopened, The Crab Shack, known for welcoming tourists and locals in droves, brought back anyone willing to work ... which turned out to be not many.

“Tell anybody who wants to work to come on,” Flanigan said. “We’ve lost a lot of people. We can get servers, but if you don’t have cooks, you don’t need servers.”

Come Spring Break, one of Savannah’s busiest seasons, The Crab Shack was unable to serve half as many customers as usual. “We seated close to 750 people before this started. Now, we seat just a little over 300. And when we’re really busy, we can’t even do that. I have one whole side shut down,” Flanigan said. He’s attempted to incentivize applicants with a $3,000 bonus for new kitchen staff willing to stick it out through the busy season, but no one’s taking the bait.

“I had one applicant who didn’t show up for the interview,” he said. “The situation’s really gonna have to change industrywide because it’s not divided equitably. The kitchen does most of the work and the servers make most of the money.”

click to enlarge Locals and visitors wait to be seated outside of the Collin’s Quarter. - PHOTO BY MELISSA HAYES
Photo by Melissa Hayes
Locals and visitors wait to be seated outside of the Collin’s Quarter.
Anthony Debreceny, owner of Collins Quarter, Fitzroy, and The Deck on Tybee, shares similar woes. He’s had a $50K management position posted for three weeks and only had four applicants. “I believe it’s just the perfect storm,” he said. “You’ve got a combination of Savannah getting busy, everyone looking for employees and then unemployment benefits are kicking in all around the same time.”

“We certainly don’t have the time to train people. If we get someone who wants to be a server, they might get a day’s training, and then it’s right into it. We are not having our staff trained as well as we’d like because there are so few people and so many tourists in town.”

Many diners just aren’t familiar with restaurant logistics. On the surface, things appear fine. People see empty tables waiting to be seated, other customers mingling, and servers maneuvering dining rooms. But when a kitchen staff drops from seven workers to five, the ripple effect is felt throughout the restaurant.

“If people see empty seats, it’s not because we don’t want to serve you,” Debreceny said. “It’s because we don’t think we can serve you to your expectations and in a way that represents us and our brand.”

Despite these grim times for restaurants, Debreceny remains optimistic now that Spring Break has passed. For years, he’s kept detailed records of his restaurants’ ebbs and flows.

“I think we have four to six more weeks of Savannah being traditionally busy through May, and then I think we’ll be through the worst of the staffing issue,” he said. “I’m just glad to see that people are happy and healthy. This is a good problem to have because it’d be worse if we were heading in the other direction.”

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