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August 1, 2022

Restaurant industry’s worker shortage, other challenges raise fears of mass closures

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Scott Smith (left) and Steve Abrams are the majority owners of the well-known Max Hospitality restaurant group.

The pandemic walloped Connecticut’s restaurant industry. More than two years later, customers have returned, but eateries continue to face an arguably more daunting challenge: They can’t hire staff.

“It’s nearly impossible to find workers,” said Alison De Renzi, co-owner and manager of L’Orcio, a fine-dining establishment in New Haven. “It’s very frustrating.”

Connecticut Restaurant Association President and CEO Scott Dolch said the state’s food service labor shortage is at near crisis levels, with restaurant staffs down 30% to 40% from pre-pandemic levels.

Scott Dolch

He estimated the industry is short 20,000 to 22,000 workers with no end in sight. Couple that with inflation driving up wages and the cost of everything else, and you have a perfect storm pushing many state restaurants to the brink, Dolch said.

“It’s a very scary time right now,” he said. “The reality is people are out, people are supporting (restaurants). But perception isn’t reality. People see a busy restaurant and think they are turning a profit.”

Steve Abrams, vice president of Max Hospitality — which operates 10 restaurants, most of them in the Hartford area including Max Downtown and Trumbull Kitchen in downtown Hartford, and a catering business — said he has been able to hang on to his more skilled employees but can’t find workers for less skilled positions.

All but a few of his kitchens are short staffed, leaving the remaining employees working harder than ever, he said.

Abrams laid some of the blame on the pandemic, which led many food-service employees to rethink their lives and careers, he said.

Francesco d’Amuri and Alison De Renzi co-own New Haven’s L’Orcio restaurant.

“The restaurant industry kind of got turned upside down, and the world changed,” he said. “I believe that many people who were in those positions realized that it was perhaps a better lifestyle to have a different kind of job.”

The tight labor market in the wake of the worst of the pandemic made things worse, Abrams said. Even when he hires someone, it’s not uncommon for them to quit after a few days to look for something better, he said.

“There are people around here that will come in and apply for a job and work one or two days and leave,” Abrams said.

While Max’s may be retaining its top-line employees, the inability to hire less skilled workers robs it of a farm team. The group has a policy of moving workers who show promise up the ladder, starting them on knife skills and preparing cold dishes and then moving them to more challenging tasks, he said.

Max’s has reacted by stepping up recruiting — its human resources manager now spends most of her time beating the bushes for employees — and offering signing bonuses payable after a worker works a certain number of days, Abrams said. The group is also offering employees $1,000 bounties for each person they refer who works out, he said.

Over the longer term, Abrams said the group is looking into greater automation, machines, for example, that slice vegetables and french fries. The restaurant, which has been hit by a big increase in the cost of virtually everything — meat alone has gone up 25% to 30% in two years — is also making less profit to spare its customers sticker shock, he said.

“We’d much rather take a little bit of a hit on our margins and make sure we are running lean and mean before we raise prices on our menu,” Abrams said.

De Renzi tells a similar story at L’Orcio in New Haven, which she co-owns with her chef-husband. She said she doesn’t know how anyone can make it today unless they are owner-operators able to do pretty much everything.

“In our situation, I can serve tables, I can host and tend bar,” De Renzi said. “I can’t imagine a restaurant anymore that didn’t have an owner who couldn’t do every part of the job.”

L’Orcio, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in February, has struggled to hire workers of any kind, from kitchen help to servers to a hostess, she said. Many kitchen workers shy away from the complexity of the food, and the restaurant went months without a hostess, she said.

De Renzi said she tried to bring on four new servers for the summer but none of them ended up being hired because they got better offers, or wanted to work only certain days. The restaurant has managed to pull through by bringing in a relative and the couple’s teenage daughter to work, she said.

“It’s been tough,” De Renzi said. “I feel very fortunate because I have a very long-standing work crew that has been working for me for years, if not decades. Certainly it’s not sustainable.”

Mass closures

Dolch said he is concerned that the formidable obstacles state restaurants face could lead to mass closures.

He noted that 73% of state eateries are locally-owned instead of being franchises or chains, which he cites as a major reason for the vibrancy of the state’s food scene. He fears the local owner-operator will be supplanted by big chains that can better absorb rising costs and labor shortages.

To fight back, Dolch said he is planning events for owners to showcase ways to navigate the increasingly challenging business environment. Those challenges however, aren’t going away any time soon, he said.

“We’re not going to flip a switch, and we’re going back to normal,” Dolch said. “This is going to take years.”

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