Restaurant workers became jobless at the start of the pandemic. Why haven’t they come back?

Trolly Stop can’t find workers. It’s currently running the shop with five employees, instead of the usual 10, and is closed on Sundays to guarantee staff a day off. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. –– After six years of working in the same kitchen, Charlie Blake traded in his apron and chef hat to be a stay-at-home dad.

In August he walked away from his well-paying position as corporate executive chef for Cambridge Village of Wilmington to care for his 7-month-old baby and help his 7-year-old daughter with her remote school work.

“It’s definitely a lot of change: being a 60-hour-a-week chef to now being home with the kids,” Blake said, “doing laundry and cleaning the toilet and being a teacher for first grade.”


The decision to leave the job — and the paycheck — didn’t come easy, according to Blake. In the past eight months, he and his family adjusted their lifestyle to meet that of a single-income household. One way: He now cooks at home for his family, instead of dining out.

“I’d love to be taking home lots of money like I had before, but it’s not important as it had been,” Blake said. “I think all of us really changed priorities.”

Now Blake is in no rush to return to a kitchen — and he’s not the only one.

Restaurant owners are fighting to hire back employees they lost when they shut their doors or modified their business plans a year ago. After 365-plus days of Covid-19 restrictions, eateries and bars finally have the opportunity to regain their footing, opening at 75% capacity and profiting off customers who are anxious to get out of the house now that they are vaccinated.

Yet, most businesses still don’t have sufficient staff to reopen every day of the week or offer the full menu.

Before the pandemic, Josh Petty, owner of Cast Iron Kitchen, had almost 30 people working at his Southern restaurant on Market Street. Currently, he has 14 workers on the payroll.

When he pressed “post” on a job on Indeed, the employment site warned him via a pop-up message that the profession he was hiring for was not receiving applicants.

“It’s basically telling you, ‘Good luck,’” Petty said. “We had it up for three days and got nothing.”

Restaurants were already struggling to find employees pre-pandemic, but the change was occurring slowly as potential candidates gravitated toward skilled trades or applied to large companies with increasingly competitive wages. The pandemic accelerated the trend of people leaving restaurant work behind.

“It’s just a job that people really don’t want anymore, I guess,” Petty said. “It’s not like it used to be. I remember, growing up, you always worked in a restaurant. It was like a rite of passage.”

A dwindling labor force

New Hanover County’s labor force is, in fact, shrinking.

There are about 5,000 fewer workers since before the pandemic started in January of last year, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With fewer workers, restaurants like Cast Iron Kitchen have slowed operations and reduced menus to try to keep up. Petty said he wants to find other avenues of income and is considering catering. Without enough employees, though, he worries about who will oversee the operations if he has to leave to fulfill a catering request.

Trolly Stop is also regularly turning down catering gigs – one of its main revenue streams – due to the labor shortage. At this time of year, the hot dog shop normally employs 10 staff members, who take home an average of $12 to $14 an hour when including tips. The shop is now running with five employees and is closing on Sundays to ensure those workers a day off.

“I’m losing money because I can’t keep it open the hours that I need to,” owner Rich Walsh said. “I’m, at this point, really just breaking even.”

Walsh said it’s “beyond him” why no one is applying – or why people are applying but never showing up.

There a few different types of people in the 5,000-pool of missing workers, according to regional economist and chair of the Economics and Finance Department at UNCW Adam Jones. Some of the potential employees are university students who are working toward their degrees remotely in places other than Wilmington.

Kohl’s Frozen Custard manager Matthew Smith said he is normally able to successfully staff the shop each season through UNCW’s job portal. This year that hasn’t been the case. Although the shop normally runs with a team of 15, Smith only has seven employees right now.

“I’ve had to work the store myself every day from open to close because I don’t have the staff that would allow me to take any evenings off,” Smith said.

Some of the missing members of the labor force are staying home to care for their kids while they’re out of school, like Blake.

Then there is a portion of people who have yet to come back because they assume there’s little opportunity in the hospitality industry as it continues to rebound, Jones suspects.

Of course, people could just be stretching out the Covid-19 benefits from the government.

“There are some folks who have undoubtedly figured out how to make ends meet with unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, and once those run out will then come back into the labor market,” Jones said.

The most recent county-by-county data from the N.C. Department of Commerce placed the New Hanover County unemployment rate at 5.5% in January 2021, down just 0.1% from December. In January 2020, the rate was 3.4%.

New Hanover County’s unemployment rate ranks 27th on the list of North Carolina counties, with a total of 6,609 residents receiving benefits, according to the report.

President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package guarantees the unemployed are receiving a $300-per-week boost in benefits through Labor Day. In North Carolina, that is in addition to the average $236 given each week.

There is also the fear of contracting Covid-19 upon returning to work. Less than one-fourth of New Hanover County residents are fully vaccinated.

Nathan Coryell said he was abruptly laid off when an owner closed the restaurant Coryell worked at in Indiana. He moved to North Carolina after that but said he hasn’t returned to work because he’s yet to find a restaurant with strict Covid-19 protocols and testing. Some, he said, don’t require workers to wear masks unless they’re working in front of customers.

“Personally, once I get vaccinated, then I would feel more comfortable with that,” Coryell said. “But as of right now, I’m just very leery.”

Vito’s Pizza attempts to lure in potential job candidates with multiple signs along South College Road. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands).

Competing with corporate companies and entrepreneurs

Government benefits, children at home and fear amongst the immunocompromised aren’t the only factors playing into people’s decisions to ditch the restaurant industry.

Before the pandemic, it was already increasingly difficult to find employees as the unemployment rate hit record lows. Economists consider “full employment” as somewhere between 4% and 4.5% unemployment, Jones said. The rate was at 3.6% in January 2020.

With few people searching for “help wanted” signs, businesses had to step up their strategies of attracting and maintaining talent. The wages of lower-income workers were rising at the fastest rate of any sector before Covid-19 hit, Jones said.

Coryell said he knows friends in the industry who are bouncing around different jobs because they’re offered just 50 cents to $1 more an hour.

“You really need these people to come back to work, you got to offer them more than anywhere between $9 and $11 an hour, especially with the unemployment [benefits] still going on,” Coryell said.

Workers today are looking for benefits as well. Large companies, such as Staples and Whole Foods, are now offering insurance plans. But small business owners can’t always afford to do the same.

“A chain company has some advantages when it comes to competing in those markets because they have scale when they’re buying health insurance benefits, for example, or setting up retirement benefit plans,” Jones said.

Jones said as chains continue to put pressure on small businesses, those establishments must continue to figure out how to compete.

“It’s definitely a chicken and egg kind of thing,” he said. “You got to get the good employees in order to compete on service. And when you’re competing on service, then you can sell at a higher margin, which allows you to pay your employees more.”

Lisa Leath, owner of the human resources consulting firm Leath HR Group, recommends small businesses consider what they can afford and compromise. For example, restaurant owners could potentially offer their employees memberships to primary-care offices, even if they can’t extend full health insurance benefits.

Many workers who left restaurants took advantage of 2020 to seek other opportunities – often less demanding or higher-paying jobs. Cody Strickland hasn’t worked in the restaurant industry since August. Previously he worked at a local franchise, and said he was concerned about the seemingly ever-changing Covid-19 restrictions and locations struggling to keep up. Now he’s pursuing a career in social media marketing.

“A lot of restaurants just don’t want to change the way they have been, but the restaurant world is by far the most underpaid industry for the amount of work you do,” Strickland said. “It kind of took getting out of the restaurant world for me to see that.”

The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce has seen a 24% increase in business licenses since last year, according to president and CEO Natalie English.

“There’s been a boom in entrepreneurial and small business endeavors since the beginning of the pandemic,” English said.

Although that’s good for the economy, creating more jobs, it’s further proof that restaurant workers may be pursuing other paths, and returning to their posts is out of the question.

The season of hiring, or not

The greater Wilmington area is just months away from the peak of tourism season. Spring breakers are already in town, filling shops and lining up for tables at popular dining spots. Visitors spent upward of $600 million in the county in 2018 and 2019.

Located on downtown Wilmington’s most bustling street, Front Street Brewery is seeing the foot traffic it normally would this time of year outside its storefront – but not the job candidates.

Locals accustomed to the tourism-driven economy of Wilmington are usually filing applications this time of year. The tourism industry employs more than 6,600 people annually, according to Visit North Carolina. Ellie Craig, sales and marketing director at Front Street Brewery, said it’s unusual to experience difficulty hiring around this time.

Yet, Front Street Brewery is down on its back-of-house staff. Since reopening in June, the brewpub has remained closed on Monday because it was not making the sales needed to keep the doors open. It hopes to resume operations seven days a week this May, but not unless it is fully staffed.

“Until we can get to the point where we know we’re going to be able to give our guests the best possible customer experience that they can have seven days a week, we’re gonna hold off on doing that,” Craig said.

Change from all sides

Wilmington Chamber of Commerce’s English believes demand for dining will come back and the hospitality sector will rebound, but business owners must rethink how they attract and retain.

“Replacing employees is already costly, and when there are fewer job seekers in the market for new opportunities, the time spent, money spent, and revenue lost from hiring adds up,” English said.

Leath, of the HR Group, said industries may need to offer different scheduling to grant more flexibility to workers with families.

“Hospitality’s inflexible schedules typically don’t lend well to having responsibilities outside of oneself,” Leath said.

Still, some workers, like Blake, may just never return to the dining rooms and kitchens after 2020. Steady pay, time off and perks like a gym on-site weren’t enough to keep him at his post, and might not be enough to bring him back.

“I’ve always been a chef for somebody else and making nice food and great things for other people,” Blake said. “Now, I’ve spent most of my time doing that for myself and my family. It’s been a little bit of self-indulgence.”


Send comments and tips to Alexandria Sands at alexandria@localdailymedia.com

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