the dining room at little fox photo by izaiah johnson

Restaurants face staffing crisis as capacity restrictions lift in St. Louis

With St. Louis city and county green-lighting a return to full capacity and the public raring to get back out and hit the restaurant scene, the issue of securing enough staff to make it all happen is at the front of every restaurateur’s mind. 


Scrolling through social media posts from area restaurants begging for applicants shows how desperate restaurant owners are to rebuild their staff and the extreme measures some are taking to do so. Some places are bumping up pay rates or offering signing bonuses. A dozen Central West End restaurants, including Yellowbelly, Pi Pizzeria, Salt + Smoke and Drunken Fish, even banded together for a neighborhood job fair, held on Monday, May 3, in an effort to attract applicants.  


“It’s unprecedented for sure. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Louie DeMun owner Matt McGuire of the hiring situation. “It’s all been pretty upside down.” 


“Even before the pandemic, it was always hard to find cooks,” said Kenny Snarzyk, co-owner of The Crow’s Nest. “I think now it’s just hard to find people in general.”


The virus has created a perfect hiring storm of sorts. Many restaurants were forced to lay-off staff during the pandemic and went completely dormant or operated at a fraction of capacity and relied on pivots like curbside service to survive. Now, all of them are poised to go back online at the same time and are competing for a pool of workers that was limited before Covid and has gotten even smaller as a result of the pandemic for a variety of reasons. 


“I think there is a substantial class of people who were working at restaurants and got furloughed who aren’t coming back,” said McGuire. These employees left and some of them got stimulus money or elevated unemployment benefits and chose to take the time to reassess what they wanted do without the pressure of work, he said.  


“It’s probably the first time in a lot of workers’ lives where they had the opportunity to take a pause and see what they wanted to do. This was a very unique opportunity for a lot of restaurant people,” he said. “Once you take that break and experience a more normal schedule, it’s hard to go back.” 


One upside to the pandemic is that owners have been able to reassess their staffing needs and make changes to increase workers’ quality of life. Steve Smith, tavern keeper at The Royale, said he’s currently open six shifts per week, down from the 14 weekly shifts he ran pre-pandemic, and he has no plans to go back to being open seven days a week, 360 days a year. He’s also paying employees more than ever before. 


“I don’t see myself anytime soon, regardless of restrictions being lifted, doing more than that,” he said. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that taking time off for yourself and your business’ health and the physical structure’s health is not a bad thing. I need to survive, but if I can survive without having to do 14 shifts a week, that’s probably better for me and my staff and the quality of work we do around here. Going back to ‘normal’ is losing an opportunity to do it better.” 


Some restaurant employees took other jobs out of necessity, experienced life outside the restaurant industry and discovered they didn’t have the desire to return. Tatyana Telnikova, owner of HandleBar, said one of her employees signed on as a driver for UPS. Snarzyk said one of his bartenders opted for a work-from-home information technology (IT) gig.


One of the keys to weathering the hiring storm for many restaurants has been the ability to retain staff during the crisis. McGuire said Louie has been fortunate in that it was able to stay open selling to-go food throughout the pandemic and so was able to keep its entire staff employed. It was financially difficult at the time, but now the sacrifice is paying off, he said. 


“I was able to retain a lot of my team and a couple of employees I was able to keep employed throughout the whole year,” Telnikova said. She said her issue now is having enough work for the rest who want to come back, as HandleBar is currently only open four days a week. She said she’s extremely grateful for their loyalty. “This year, I felt more reassured, more so than in my entire career, that my efforts in making my employees happy is paying off,” she said. 


Mowgli Rivard, co-owner of Little Fox, has reopened for dinner just four days a week. She said many of her employees have returned, and she’s been able to handle the reduced schedule so far. 


“One thing that’s giving me hope that the hiring situation will turn around a bit is that we had a few people who left the industry during this time and got nine-to-five jobs, and they realized how much they loved restaurants and came back,” she said. “[The kitchen] is definitely stretched the thinnest, but they’re making it work and doing a great job.” 


Smith said he’s also been able to retain a good portion of his staff and was even able to contact a few who left the industry years ago and convince them to get back in the saddle. Finding new hires has been an issue, though, especially cooks, he said. 


Snarzyk said he was able to retain about 90 percent of his staff. He attributes this to the fact that creating a positive space for them has always been a priority. “Basically, we’re good to them,” he said. 


The hiring crunch will likely delay some outdoor dining options as patio season gets into full swing. Last year, Little Fox added additional outdoor seating by pitching a tent in the lot across the street. Rivard hopes to do the same later this month, but it’s dependent on getting enough people to staff it. Likewise, McGuire said he hopes to expand patio operations at Louie soon, but adding new staff will be the key to when that happens. 


There’s no doubt that going forward, restaurateurs are going to have to take a hard look at how they handle the challenges of hiring and retaining staff, and how they’re going to pay for it.


“I do believe the restaurant business as a whole is going to have to be very innovative in the next year,” said Miguel Carretero, owner of Guido’s Pizzeria and Tapas. “It’s definitely going to be a long, hard summer for all of us.” He said he’s increased pay, and while he hasn’t offered bonuses yet, it isn’t out of the question.  


“I think this industry is going to see a distinct price increase (on food and drinks), and people are going to have to change their expectations of what they’re paying,” Smith said. 


McGuire said it’s possible increased costs may be offset by the potential surge in business as restrictions are lifted and the public begins eating out again, but cautioned that customer tolerance for increased prices is limited. “Hopefully, it will bring a greater legitimacy to the work,” McGuire said of raising wages. He also hopes greater attention will be brought to the pay disparity between front-of-house and back-of-house staff. He said higher pay and bonuses will definitely hurt margins, though, and some of the old ideas about what percentage of gross sales labor should account for will change, impacting profitability. But, he said, this will happen anyway with the prospect of an elevated minimum wage on the horizon. 


“I think all of us are going to have to reinvest in people – because there are plenty of jobs out there to do for a higher wage,” McGuire said.