'In full desperation mode,' some restaurant owners turn to unconventional methods to hire employees

Stephanie Giordano, who has worked in the restaurant industry in various locations and capacities since 1999, thought she had seen it all — until a few weeks ago when someone applied for a hostess job at Cucina Cabana, the Italian/Continental restaurant she currently manages in North Palm Beach, Florida. 

“This candidate wanted $25 an hour, medical, dental vision, and her own parking space,” Giordano said. “Oh, and she didn’t want to work weekends, which is our busiest time of the week.”

Giordano says she shared this story with her staff of 20 and everyone had a good laugh. But what’s going on in the restaurant world is no joke.

After all, many restaurants across the nation are operating with significantly less staff. Capacity is limited, hours are uncertain, wait times for tables and food are unusually long, employees are young and inexperienced, menus are pared back, and patrons are filing a record number of complaints, according to restaurant-analytics firm Black Box Intelligence.

Pedestrians walk past a

Pedestrians walk past a “Help Wanted” sign posted at restaurant looking for line cooks and servers on June 22, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. – Restaurant owners in California are facing a labour crisis amid the Covid reopening, unable to find enough workers, while across the country The National Restaurant Association has reported some 2.5 million jobs were lost in the eating and drinking industry in 2020. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

As restaurants plead for patience and understanding, they’re actively recruiting new hires in unconventional — and sometimes controversial — ways. 

Some are going door to door, handing out job flyers in the local community. Others are hosting ‘open houses,’ beefing up their social media accounts, and enticing prospective employees with lucrative perks — from higher wages and signing bonuses to paid vacation time, enhanced benefits, and complimentary housing. A few are taking a more questionable approach, such as tapping more undocumented workers. 

“They’ve got bargaining power,” said Naroff Economics’ Joel Naroff, who serves as economic advisor to Black Box. “That’s not to say that restaurants are rushing to hire illegals, but you do things you don’t want to do when there are no other choices and you want to keep the lights on.”

“I’m even hearing stories about people getting paid under the table so they can keep their benefits,” said Carlos Gazitua, CEO of Sergio’s, a family-style Cuban chain based in South Florida. “Right now, restaurants are in full desperation mode.”

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Not Kate’s Simple Eats, in Marion, Massachusetts. 

“Finding good help in this industry has always been challenging so I don’t see the point of incentivizing new hires when you don’t know anything about them or whether they’re going to work out,” said owner, Kate Ross. “I’m celebrating people who are showing up, and giving bonuses and thank-you notes to workers who have been loyal.”

Besides, Ross said, she offers competitive, livable wages to her staff of nine, and most importantly, a healthy work environment in an industry that is renowned for its toxicity. “I care about the people I work with. I adore them. We’re family here,” she said.

A desirable environment is what restaurant workers are ultimately looking for, Naroff said.

“The shortage is [rippling through the economy] everywhere, but why do we keep hearing so much about it in the restaurant sector, specifically?” he said. “Survey after survey across the country shows that it’s about the working conditions and pay that doesn’t compensate for the lousy conditions.”

People eat breakfast at a restaurant that is advertising that they are hiring in Annapolis, Maryland, on May 12, 2021. - US consumer inflation surged 4.2 percent last month compared to April 2020, the Labor Department said May 12, 2021, posting the biggest year-on-year increase since 2008 as the economy recovered from the pandemic. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

People eat breakfast at a restaurant that is advertising that they are hiring in Annapolis, Maryland, on May 12, 2021. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Restaurant workers have had ample time to reflect and explore opportunities in other fields, Naroff said. They’ll ultimately make a decision about whether or not to return to the restaurant world in September — when unemployment benefits expire and the kids go back to school. 

“That’s when the rubber meets the road,” he said.

Barring any downside risks brought on by highly contagious Covid-19 variants, such as Delta, many restauranteurs agree. 

“I think September will mark the beginning to the end of the worker shortage and the situation will ‘right’ itself,” said Gazitua, who manages a staff of over 400 employees. “In fact, we’re already seeing an influx of applicants who want to return to work (10-12 applicants in the past week alone, up from five applicants in a typical week), but they don’t want to start until then.”

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Personal Finance Journalist Vera Gibbons is a former staff writer for SmartMoney magazine and a former correspondent for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. Vera, who spent over a decade as an on air Financial Analyst for MSNBC, currently serves as co-host of the weekly nonpolitical news podcast she founded, NoPo. She lives in Palm Beach, Florida.

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