Local restaurants respond to staffing shortages: Lack of hospitality workers is an ongoing fallout of the pandemic

Local restaurants respond to staffing shortages: Lack of hospitality workers is an ongoing fallout of the pandemic
First floor interior of Old Hat Pub. (Photo/Irina Prosser for Old Hat)

By Katherine Hapgood |khapgood@alextimes.com

With the world opening back up, eating out at one’s favorite local restaurant is again a reality. While this would seem like a boon for restauranteurs – both locally and nationally – owners are struggling to open their restaurants to the allowed full capacity because of staffing shortages.

Alexandria restaurants have found ways to adapt and deviate, to some extent, from this national trend.

After postponing the opening of Old Hat Bar in Old Town several times due to lack of staff, owners Jack Caminos and Tim Prosser made the decision to downsize their menu to fit the number of employees they did have, instead of continuing to delay the opening of the pub.

Caminos and Prosser combined have decades of experience in the restaurant industry and are used to working with seasoned professionals, they said. Together, they had hoped to bring in connections from the restaurant industry, but those people stayed loyal to their current employers, “which is why we wanted them, because they’re such good people,” Caminos said.

However, Caminos emphasized that “the people that have been showing up [to work at Old Hat Bar] have an unbelievably good attitude. They maybe don’t have as much experience, but their eagerness is really satisfying.”

Jack Caminos (left) and Tim Prosser (right), owners of Old Hat Pub
in Old Town. (Photo/Irina Prosser for Old Hat)

In some ways, the staffing situation was an extension of the duo’s challenges during the height of COVID-19 last year. Due to restrictions and reduced staffing at the city level, everything from renovating the 112 N. St Asaph St. building – formerly home to King Street Blues – to securing permits posed an additional obstacle.

“[COVID-19] alone changed everything,” Caminos said. “From difficulties [with] the contractors getting laborers to permits and drawings, no one was able to get things done.”

Other Alexandria restauranteurs have been less impacted by staffing shortages. Bill Blackburn, the managing partner of Homegrown Restaurant Group, said he has been able to maintain about 80% of his staff during the pandemic, with more bartenders and servers than other employees leaving. Homegrown owns six Alexandria restaurants, including Holy Cow, Pork Barrel BBQ and Tequila & Taco.

“We want our employees to be happy, and we want our employees to enjoy coming to work, and we want our employees to feel comfortable at work,” Blackburn said.

In an effort to attract the seasonal employees that the group needs, the restaurant group increased its hourly rate from $11 to $15 to be more competitive.

“The pandemic and the labor shortage kind of accelerated [the process of increasing wages],” Blackburn said. Chad Sparrow, managing partner at Common Plate Hospitality, another restaurant group in Alexandria, said his group has increased pay as well, with some positions paying up to $18 per hour. Even with wage increases, Sparrow said he has still experienced some employee turnover.

Blackburn also attributed the challenges with hiring staff to restaurants in Washington D.C. reopening. As a result of local restaurants’ ongoing financial straits and staffing issues, the restaurant industry has become markedly more competitive, according to Blackburn.

“There’s places that are putting out sign-on bonuses and offering all sorts of perks, and it’s different right now than anything I’ve seen in the last 30 years,” Blackburn said.

Sparrow said he hasn’t seen specific trends of employees leaving to go to one location over another, but has had employees leave for restaurants in Washington D.C., Arlington and other restaurants in Alexandria.

Nationally, a variety of factors have contributed to the labor shortage in the restaurant industry.

According to a peer-reviewed study done by researchers at the University of California San Francisco, line cooks at restaurants had the highest risk of mortality during the COVID-19 pandemic, even in comparison to healthcare workers. Line cooks had a 60% increase in mortality associated with the pandemic, partially due to factors like close proximity to other employees and the lack of air flow in combination with a lot of heat within their work environment.

The first floor bar area of Old Hat Pub. (Photo/Irina Prosser for Old Hat)

Another potential reason for the staffing shortage involves ongoing difficulties with obtaining J-1 and H-2B visas. H-2B visas are for seasonal workers and J-1 visas are seasonal visas for students specifically.

These visas, along with green cards, were halted by the Trump administration in June 2020 in response to the pandemic. While the restrictions expired in April 2021, there remains a backlog of visas to be processed, State Department officials told National Public Radio. As a result, the seasonal workforce that typically supplements restaurants during the high traffic summer months are unable to make it into the country – and will likely be unable to for the near future.

A third factor in the nationwide restaurant industry staffing shortage is the additional unemployment benefit that was part of the CARES Act in 2020. Last year, workers whose employers had to shut down because of government-ordered mandates were eligible to receive an additional $600 per week on top of their state’s regular unemployment benefit.

While that extra benefit was later reduced to $300 per week as the economy began reopening – and is set to expire on Sept. 4 – for many lower-wage workers the difference in income between working and unemployment benefits was negligible.

Some employers, including Sparrow, cited these unemployment payments as contributing to their staffing difficulties.

“A lot of people are choosing to stay at home and collect that [unemployment stimulus] until that’s out,” Sparrow said.

Chad Sparrow, managing partner at Common Plate Hospitality. (Photo/Courtesy)

Common Plate Hospitality has retained about 85% of its workforce at the company’s three restaurants – Mason Social, Augie’s and Urbano 116. The group’s revenues are up and the restaurants are doing relatively well, with revenue up 15% in May 2021 compared to May 2019, even with the labor shortage, according to Sparrow.

In contrast, Blackburn said other factors during the pandemic, such as childcare, have also contributed to labor shortages, not necessarily just the unemployment stimulus checks.

“I think childcare is a major issue. … It’s taken a lot of parents out of the workforce, especially women, and I think that’s not being talked about enough,” Blackburn said.

Bill Blackburn, managing partner at HomeGrown Restaurant
Group, pictured at Pork Barrel BBQ. (Photo/Katherine Hapgood)

Among Alexandrians in the restaurant business, there are different ideas behind the tight labor market, which both Sparrow and Blackburn acknowledged existed before the pandemic.

Sparrow argued that labor shortages will continue until the unemployment stimulus ends. Meanwhile, Blackburn speculated that the labor market will remain tight until schools open back up and parents no longer have to leave their jobs to care for their children.

Kristina Scrimshaw, an ex-bartender at Pork Barrel BBQ, left that restaurant for reasons unrelated to childcare or unemployment benefits.

Scrimshaw found herself faced with a choice: At the beginning of the pandemic, her employer at Mind the Mat, where she worked a second job as a yoga and Pilates instructor, decided, for safety reasons, that Scrimshaw needed to either work in the restaurant or work in their studio.

Scrimshaw said the decision to leave Pork Barrel came down to a mix of financial stability, enjoyment and personal development.

“It’s a weird juxtaposition. … I want to bartend forever, but [I also want] to better myself and my career by advancing,” Scrimshaw said.

According to Scrimshaw, the pandemic pushed her away from her work in the restaurant industry because the most enjoyable parts of bartending for her no longer existed.

“[When I was bartending], it was like I was hosting a little party every evening,” Scrimshaw said.

One thing that those in the restaurant industry in Alexandria seem to agree on, besides the importance of a positive work environment, is the massive role the community played in keeping local restaurants open.

“Early on in the pandemic there was an overwhelming sense of pride and support for all of the [local] restaurants,” Blackburn said.

That support allowed Blackburn and his restaurant group to keep almost the entirety of their staff on payroll, even during the toughest months of the pandemic.

“We’re blessed, and we’re fortunate, and we’re very grateful that our neighborhoods supported us,” Blackburn said.