Food News

How Sarasota Restaurants Are Navigating a Labor Shortage

Wages are rising and more restaurants are offering benefits and other bonuses—but servers and cooks remain scarce.

By Elizabeth Djinis August 11, 2021

For the last two months, Christian Hershman has maintained an ongoing Craigslist ad for a $25-an-hour cook at his Rosemary District joint, The Overton.

In pre-pandemic times, he might have gotten one or two dozen responses in a month. Now, he’s received three bites in the same timeframe.

“If they [workers] are not applying for a $25-an-hour job,” Hershman says, “we’ve reached a point where I’m kind of baffled.”

Craigslist data corresponds with Hershman’s assessment—more than 40 job postings for a “cook” were listed in the Sarasota area for the month of July alone. Multiple listings are advertising perks like $500 signing bonuses. Snook Haven ran an ad for restaurant workers that offered a 401(k), health insurance, paid vacation days, a free YMCA membership as well as competitive pay.

But for many workers, pay and benefits are not the sole issue—it’s a culture problem. More than a third of former hospitality workers surveyed by employment listing site Joblist said they are not even considering a hospitality job for their next role. Those who are making the switch said they were looking for different work settings, as well as higher pay and better benefits. More than half of former hospitality workers said that no pay increase or incentive would convince them to go back to their old job.

Local restaurant owners are feeling the pinch. Michael’s On East is at 75 percent staffing in the restaurant, according to co-owner Michael Klauber. Oasis Cafe and Bakery has 11 employees when they’d normally have 15, says chef and owner Jim Palermo. Across fine dining, mom-and-pop breakfast shops and cafés like The Overton, owners simply can’t find people to hire.

“It’s our most significant challenge right now—staffing,” says Klauber, adding that he’s had trouble hiring in every department, from dishwashers and food prep teams to bussers and servers to management roles. “We’ve had to scale back on the amount of people that we serve each night in order to balance that.”

This situation isn’t new. It’s been going on to some degree since Florida’s post-pandemic reopening last year, but hit a high point this spring. There are numerous theories for why.

Some politicians and restaurant owners blame the worker shortage on unemployment benefits, but in Florida, those benefits are among the lowest in the country. Florida workers can make a maximum of $275 a week on state reemployment assistance. At the start of the pandemic, the federal government instituted an additional $600 on top of state unemployment benefits. But Florida’s buggy unemployment application website meant some workers went weeks and months without receiving their first check. And for those who finally did qualify, many could make as much or more through tips—think hundreds of dollars—working two nights in a front-of-house position at a restaurant. For these workers, unemployment checks were nowhere near as lucrative as a typical work week in a restaurant.

Even bringing Florida’s minimum wage to $15 by 2026, something that more than 60 percent of voters approved as a constitutional amendment in November 2020, may not cut it. In Sarasota, where the average rent is $1,687 a month, roughly $1,000 more than larger cities like Tampa and St. Petersburg, $15 an hour doesn’t pay the bills.

Klauber says most restaurants are already at $15 anyway. Hourly employees like dishwashers, line cooks and hostesses at Michael’s On East range from $12 to $20 an hour. Tipped employees are harder to estimate.

At The Overton, employees start at more than $10 an hour and tips are shared with the entire staff, an unusual practice for most restaurants, which bumps everyone up another $3 to $5 an hour, according to Hershman. That puts the average hourly amount at $18. Oasis’ dishwashers start at $13 per hour and line cooks between $15 and $16, while front of house can make between $25 and $30 an hour with tips, Palermo says.

While Sarasota’s wages may be on par with national trends, restaurant workers have to deal with the uncertainty of the industry. They might work double shifts or help out with other responsibilities if their workplace is understaffed. Servers and hostesses are dealing with the immediate public, and that means tensions can be high—having to ask guests to wear a face mask or touching dirty silverware and cash during a pandemic.

All of this means many restaurants remain understaffed.

“For us, having less help translates to being less innovative and not being able to do as much as we feel we’re able to,” Hershman says. “For others, it literally means they have to take tables off the floor. That’s a horrible position to be in.”

To Hershman, this post-Covid time is the start of an industry reckoning. Former hospitality workers are wondering whether this is really what they want to be doing long-term—and many of them are coming up with a “No.”

“For lifelong hospitality workers, you have to at some point figure out what the real reward is,” Hershman says. “Because if it’s solely focused on monetary rewards, you’re going to be pretty dissatisfied.”

But not every service industry worker has become disillusioned with their field of choice during the pandemic.

Bartender Yanelie Llorca, 28, works at St. Armands Circle’s Tommy Bahama Restaurant and receives health insurance and a 401(k) plan through the eatery and works five days a week. She makes between $150 and $400 a night with tips.

“For me, it’s kind of hard to leave it,” she says. “I make great money. The staff is really nice. The managers care about you. It’s a family atmosphere at Tommy Bahama.”

Still, she has pondered making a career change. It scares her to watch bartenders in their 40s who have to wrap their arms with therapeutic tape each night to ease their muscles. She knows the feeling—she pulled a muscle in her back in March while working and now goes to a chiropractor.

“I don’t want to be 40 and still a bartender,” she says. “I know my body is going to give out. I see 40-year-old bartenders and they have to strap up.”

Looking to the future

Despite fewer workers, Klauber remains optimistic. When he walks around to tables and introduces himself, he’s surprised to find people who’ve never been there.

In the month of April, more than 50 percent of the people Michael’s On East served were first-time guests, he says. And their audience is generally locals.

Other restaurants are also noticing new business trends. Oasis used to have its worst week in the second week of June. But this year, that was its best week. Palermo attributes it to pent-up demand and more and more people getting vaccinated.

“We’ve had April numbers in July,” he says, “and we’re doing it with a third less staff.”
Hershman thinks the labor shortage will lead to real change—perhaps a rosy new future for the hospitality industry where front and back of house workers are paid far more than a livable wage and have a path for career growth.

But there’s also a bleaker outlook, one that he thinks is more likely. He envisions a time where only the wealthy are waited on and cared for in a service industry setting.

Hershman, Klauber and Palermo all separately see the writing on the wall. Summer is traditionally slow, but Sarasota’s tourist season is fast approaching. And what will they do with less than 100 percent staffing then?

Klauber needs to hire between 60 and 75 staff members to run a full-service catering operation. And Palermo will have to block off half his dining room if the shortage continues.

And since raising wages and providing more benefits haven’t worked to attract and retain workers, restaurant owners are trying to figure out what will. “We’ve got to collectively figure out the value of these workers,” Hershman says. “I’m not saying there need to be parades, but these are essential workers.”

During the peak of her restaurant’s short-staffed days, Llorca was pulling as many as four or five double shifts a week. She would get in at 9:30 a.m. and not leave until 9 p.m. or later. She doesn’t need customers to treat her like a hero, but she’d settle for being seen as human.

“The customers could be nicer during the pandemic,” Llorca says. “A lot of them are expecting service superfast when we’re shorthanded. I’m like, ‘You need to be patient and know that I’m a human being.’”

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