Restaurants across the U.S. are experiencing staff shortages, and New Jersey businesses have not been immune to it. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. was experiencing nearly 11 years of economic expansion. In 2019, restaurants accounted for 8 percent of total employment in the state with over 19,000 establishments to choose from. It was projected that the industry would grow by 6.9 percent by 2029. However, that all came to an abrupt halt in April of 2020 when the country went into lockdown. NJ lost over 750,000 jobs across different industries in only one month. These jobs included restaurant owners and workers; and though life seems to be returning to normal, some NJ restaurants are still struggling to recover from the damage.
Longer wait times, reduced capacity for customers, abbreviated menus, and employee exhaustion are just some of the consequences the restaurant industry is facing as the COVID-19 pandemic fades–and it doesn’t end there. One of the biggest issues comes in the form of staff shortages. Some of New Jersey’s top restaurant owners are taking to social media and online job listings to search for cooks, bartenders, servers, and more. From being one of the state’s largest revenues to being immensely short-staffed in only a year’s time, the future of the restaurant industry is in question.
I spoke with three New Jersey-based chefs and restaurant owners who opened up about their experiences in a post-pandemic restaurant industry. Leia Gaccione of South + Pine in Morristown and Central + Main American Eatery in Madison, Ehren Ryan of Common Lot in Millburn, and Emma Taylor of Milk Sugar Love in Jersey City are just some of the many chefs and business owners who have faced the challenging return to normalcy.
Gaccione opened South + Pine in May 2015 and Central + Main American Eatery in April 2018. Since then, the Morristown chef/owner said that business had been great; but, with the COVID-19 pandemic came a “pandemic of staffing,” too. Her businesses stayed open throughout COVID-19, but only offered family-style takeout meals and grocery orders.
During the lockdown, Gaccione had to lay off about 75 percent of her staff. Later on in the pandemic, the government created a Payroll Protection Program. She said this was a loan that allowed her business to reopen and rehire the entire staff. Though all staff members were offered their jobs back, she said approximately 60 percent did not return.
Ryan is the owner and chef at Common Lot in Millburn, NJ. Common Lot opened in March 2016, and by the end of 2019, they were booked out two weeks in advance. Ryan said at the beginning of 2020, bookings began to slow and March brought a full closure. Common Lot did not reopen until September.
Of the four full-time servers, Ryan said three left the dining industry completely and only one returned. Most of the assistant servers are in high school and returned with a few that didn’t. As for the kitchen staff, unemployment benefits did not match their previous salaries, so some had to find employment elsewhere
In the last nine months, Ryan has looked for two servers and only found one, even when posting job openings to Common Lot’s social media accounts. On the same day we spoke, he had five server interviews scheduled–four of whom did not show up.
Taylor has owned Milk Sugar Love in Jersey City for eight years. In 2019, she took a large step in growing her Hamilton Park business–opening up a second shop in The Heights. She and her kitchen staff hand-make all of the ice creams offered. She said in 2019, her shops were busy and doing well; but now, they are experiencing a “quieter summer.” Taylor believes this is due to people wanting to travel. She also said there are higher expectations than last year.
“People want it now and want it faster than ever before,” said Taylor.
Milk Sugar Love managed to stay open throughout the pandemic and experienced variations of unemployment. Taylor met with her lawyer to create safe protocols for her workers, but most of her staff still left. She believes that they were mentally exhausted not just because of the work environment, but because of the world in general. Some people decided to not work completely, while others moved away.
A Mass Exodus
“There’s this kind of narrative going around saying that no one wants to come back to the restaurant industry because you don’t make a livable wage,” said Gaccione, “but nobody’s talking about how much money servers actually make.”
Gaccione said that at her restaurant, credit card tips alone per server can range from $1,000 to $2,500 a week. Their hourly rate is $4.13, which is the state-determined tipped minimum wage. However, kitchen workers make about $17 an hour.
Ryan described the restaurant industry as “volatile,” and referred to the current situation as a “mass exodus.” He believes it is caused by multiple factors including the income that comes with being on unemployment, people wanting jobs with benefits, and workers seeking jobs in other industries during the pandemic.
There is also a lack of applications in the industry, in general. “No one’s applying,” said Ryan. “I think we’re at the point where there are enough jobs out there.” The solution? Ryan suggests cutting the unemployment checks in half, which would theoretically encourage people to return to work.
Giaccone also believes the lack of employment has to do with the amount of money people can make through unemployment, in addition to the difference in pay scales amongst workers. She thinks there needs to be some sort of national shift to level out the pay scales between servers and kitchen staff specifically. “I don’t know how that starts or who starts the movement, but it needs to be done in a way where everybody does it at once.”
The Effects of Unemployment and Staff Shortages
While on unemployment, Gaccione said a former server could have made up to around $1,400 per week, which is comparable to their average salaries including tips. “Why would you go back to work to make less [money]?,” she said. However, pandemic unemployment funds are expected to end around September, which may push people back to work.
As for Taylor, she did not have an opinion on staff members making money on unemployment. “It’s something that I cannot control. The only thing I can control is how I do as a boss, how safe and secure [they are] and how I make my employees feel.”
Ryan also mentioned the possibility of more employment issues in the future if they cannot compete with the pay scales of other industries. He said that one issue for smaller businesses, including his, is providing employee health insurance benefits. Ryan said that while he would love to provide them, he simply can’t afford it.
Hours of operation have also changed at some establishments. Taylor said since she is understaffed at both locations, she had to adjust hours at her Palisades Ave. shop. At her Hamilton Park storefront, the kitchen is working at only 50 percent capacity. “I cut my menu in half,” Taylor said. “Fewer new flavors. I stopped making our non-dairy ice creams because I simply don’t have the time or the staff to make that happen.”
The lack of staff has also caused her businesses to get poor reviews online. Some days, she was forced not to open because there were not enough workers, and customers took to online review platforms to voice their dissatisfaction. People have even been falsely disputing charges on credit cards, which has also affected their profits.
For those that are working, some admit to feeling mentally exhausted by the end of their shift. Gaccione said she is concerned about the morale of the staff. “It is very hard physical and mental work,” she said, “and I’m trying my best to take care of the ladies and gentlemen who work in the kitchen because without them, I don’t have a successful business.”
Gaccione believes there is a narrative that restaurant workers are treated poorly. This causes people to not want to enter the industry, but she says that is not the case at her restaurants and at the majority of places. Taylor and Gaccione are just two owners who are working tirelessly to redefine that narrative.
“I try to treat my employees the way that I would want to be treated,” said Gaccione.
“[My employees’] physical and mental health is a priority for me,” Taylor said. “I want to make sure that if you wake up in the morning and you don’t feel good, there is no reason whatsoever you should come into work to prove yourself. I want you to take care of yourself.”
Though all of the restaurants are short-staffed and facing their own issues, not all hope for profits has been lost.
Taylor, for example, has accepted her current situation. “I’ve made mental peace with it. This is the summer that we’re going to get and I’m going to be working even harder than I was working last year… I’m going to wait until September and see what happens after because, right now, we’re surviving.”
During the height of the pandemic, Taylor said she began pivoting the business to selling pints of ice cream, which was, and still is, beneficial.
Giaccone also said business is booming. She estimates that 60 percent of guests are new. Giaccone believes that people want to go out after work, specifically in Morristown, especially if they are still working from home.
Ryan said his business operates at about 65 percent capacity; but, they fill up tables almost every night and also have new customers, especially New York residents.
Though staffing is a current issue, if the 2019 projections about restaurant growth are true, perhaps not all hope is lost for the industry. After all, food and work will always be in demand–it might just take some time for it to pick back up again.
Main image by Michael Browning