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KSL+: Restaurants Still Struggling to Find Workers

Matt Rascon: You don’t have to think too far back to remember, the restaurant scene has come a long way since 2020, when restaurants were forced to close and COVID restrictions, fear of the virus, instability and layoffs, drove customers and employees away from the food industry. Many restaurants adapted and survived.

Moudi Sbeity: I think that’s what that year kind of required people to do. Without those loans or grants, we would not have kept our doors open.

Matt Rascon: More than a year later, customers are back, the workers are not. Cost to keep the restaurants going up. And so our food prices. And some restaurant owners are getting desperate. I’m Matt Rascon and this is KSL+, KSL-TV’s digital only news show and podcast, where we take you beyond the headlines.

I spoke to Michele Corigliano with the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association. Here’s what she had to say about what owners are going through right now.

Matt Rascon: It’s been several months since I spoke to you last How is the restaurant industry doing specifically in Salt Lake City right now,

Michele Corigliano: It is worse than ever. There was a small uptick when kids got out of college. But we really haven’t seen a huge improvement, I still get three to four calls a day, begging me to find them cooks, servers, specifically kitchen help is a big is a big area that people are lacking. And it’s not just a problem in the kitchen. So food suppliers can’t find enough truck drivers. So I heard of one major food distributor that actually cut all their smallest accounts, because they can’t service them because they don’t have enough truck drivers to bring the food to the restaurants. So what happens is prices are going to have to rise because they have to make it up somewhere

Matt Rascon: At the same time business is up, as customers are eating out

Michele Corigliano: People are going out in droves right now. People have been stir crazy over the last year and some restaurants are struggling to keep up. It’s bad. It’s really bad right now. I have owners calling me up crying, saying please send me a dishwasher, please send me a line cook. I don’t know what else to do. And really, their businesses are on their line, their livelihoods are on the line. Because if they can’t find enough employees to generate enough income to pay their fixed costs, then they’re gonna lose their business, they’re not gonna be able to pay their bills. So it is dire right now.

Matt Rascon: What have you found is the reason what a restaurant owner saying about you know, this struggle?

Michele Corigliano: Well, you know, when the extra unemployment benefits ended, we didn’t see any kind of benefit to that. We think that a lot of people left the industry and we’re just trying to find new people to come join us, left the industry and decided I don’t need to come back.

They left for more permanent jobs where it wasn’t affected by day to day up swings, you know, more steady jobs, I guess you could say, and it’s not for lack of trying.

Matt Rascon: How desperate are some of these restaurant owners?

Michele Corigliano: I have seen up to $2,000 signing bonuses. I have people offer me $500 just to get them a cook that they’re paying $18 an hour. You know, I don’t take it of course but you know, it’s people are just desperate.

Matt Rascon: Okay, here’s one thing people like to say, Well, it’s because restaurants don’t pay living wages.

Michele Corigliano: Well, we don’t think that that’s true, because the ones that are making less than minimum wage, do make tips and they make far more than minimum wage, $20 to $30 an hour, most of the time. And back of house we’ve seen hourly rates go up at least 50 to 75% from previous times.

Matt Rascon: We spoke with Sibley Wozmak, she’s a modern dancer and used to work as a server, before the restaurant she worked at closed in December.

Sibley Wozmak: You have to not only care for this person, but you have to sort of cater to their personalities so that you yourself can get a good tip because some people will just tip based off of your merit, they don’t even care if you did a physically good job.

Matt Rascon: She’s one of those former servers who shifted careers during the pandemic, and is now working as a phlebotomist. She enjoyed working as a server, and felt like it gave her the flexibility to pursue her real passion, dance, while still making a living,

Sibley Wozmak: We essentially gave movement experiences and movement classes to seniors with dementia. And for a while, it felt like oh, I really like this, this is going good. And then unfortunately, we had to quit due to the pandemic as well. But also, I kept a second job just to be able to do it do that job, even though it was absolutely wonderful. It still wasn’t, as it still wasn’t making as much money as my restaurant job.

Matt Rascon: For her the shift to a new career wasn’t just about the money, but stability.

Sibley Wozmak: In phlebotomy, I know I’m going to get paid, no matter what. I know, I can do the exact job I did from one patient to another and know that I’m going to put in my 100%. And as long as I do that, and no one is gonna financially degrade me at all. Whereas in serving, I could look at someone’s girlfriend wrong. Or I could make a noise that was discomforting to the whole table, it would affect my entire pay. We would have some servers that would make a big sum and some servers that would make very little. Doesn’t matter how hard you tried with each table, it just sometimes works out that way. So that’s the only downfall to serving. Someone might get a 20 person table and be done with making their money in about an hour and a half. And some people would have to work a whole six hour, an eight hour shift in order to make the same sum. I’ve had tables where I did my best. And for some reason, they didn’t think I was ood enough. And I’ve been left with $1 from a $140 check. it’s happened before, it really is not fair.

Matt Rascon: Then COVID made an even bigger impact on knowing how much money she’d go home with at the end of the night.

Sibley Wozmak: I personally went from making a really good sum up between like $100 and $150 per night to just about, sometimes maybe $50 a night. You had to work really hard for it, you had to stay long hours for it. And so that was getting kind of crazy with the shift in customers.

And there was the worry about COVID itself. It was also kind of confusing through the whole experience being able to figure out am I making the customer feel safe? Are they making me feel unsafe? If they decide to just come in and eat without a mask like, I know I have to get over it. I still have to serve them. But this is really frustrating. Like, they’re touching the silverware that you set out, you know, and they are touching everything that you have to clean up. And so it was sort of a little frustrating when people did not want to comply with the CDC’s requirements.

Matt Rascon: A study out of the University of California, San Francisco found that line cooks were more likely to catch and die of COVID then even healthcare worker,  seeing a 60% increase in mortality rates during the first seven months of the pandemic.

And like employment issues we addressed earlier this month in the agriculture and construction industries. This is also an immigration issue.

Michele Corigliano: Another big thing that’s happening is the lack of immigrants. J-1 status has been drastically reduced. So we’re not getting in the influx from other countries that we normally get. We just did a press conference on this last week. Immigration has been so country constrain during the last year, that now the people just aren’t coming in like they were, you know, there are a lot of well, illegal immigrants that were deported. Now, no, we’re not getting that influx back. Also, the legal status has not been increased. So the quotas have not been increased since the last presidential administration. So we just don’t have enough back of house which is usually immigrants.

Matt Rascon: So you have more customers, coming to enjoy an evening out, you know, especially after pandemic where, you know, they lost so much and there weren’t as many people going out. But then you don’t have workers to actually fill these vacancies.

Michele Corigliano: I just had just in the last week, I had two people call me and say, hey, I’ve got a problem with one of your member restaurants. You know, we went and wanted a table, and they said it was an hour and a half wait, but I looked in the restaurant and half the restaurant was empty. And we, you know, there’s, they have a problem with that. And what they don’t understand is there’s not enough servers to take care of people. So they have to close off entire sections of restaurants just to be able to have enough employees to serve, what do they have? Otherwise, it’s a worse situation because people are coming in and they’ll wait two hours for their meal.

Matt Rascon: We also spoke to the owner of Laziz Kitchen, who feels fortunate, but still finds himself in a similar situation as many other restaurant owners.

Moudi Sbeity: That will be five years in October. It’s been great. It’s been really good. Yeah. COVID was hard for, for everybody. And we kind of adjusted really well. And I think that’s what that year kind of required people to do is to really kind of adapt as best as they can. And so we went through a lot of changes. A lot of two goes, we did cut a lot of staff hours as well.

Matt Rascon: Did you have to lay people off? Or did people leave? Along a mix of everything?

Moudi Sbeity: Yeah. Mix of everything.

Matt Rascon: So it’s rough.

Moudi Sbeity: Yeah. I mean, you can look at it this way. Or you can look at it as a way to kind of grow within limitations. And that’s the path I chose to see it as. Now we’re kind of in recovery mode. Yeah.

Matt Rascon: But we have this situation, it seems like with restaurants, where there are a lot of openings, maybe not as many workers to fill. What’s your current situation like?

Moudi Sbeity: In talking to other places, we’re incredibly fortunate to be at an almost full staff. But I know it’s just really hard across the board. And we still go through our challenges, like, we need to hire about two or three cooks right now, a couple of servers to and we have too understand is you can’t expect in this type of industry that your cooks will be there forever. It’s sort of cycle. So you’re always constantly having to adjust. It’s just a bit harder to find people right now. Especially professionals.

Matt Rascon:  Talk about that a little bit more, just the comparison between you know, three years ago, finding someone to work here and trying to find someone today.

Moudi Sbeity: Yeah, so three years ago, you could hire a cook at $12 an hour. And you had a lot of cooks wanting to work.

Now, what you’ll start to see happening, prices at restaurants will go up and they have been to, because now, you can’t really hire a cook at $12 an hour. So you have to pay more than that food costs are up to and so people are really paying for those costs. Not just the food but to really stay open. And so a lot of people like to blame unemployment. And I think that’s a cheap shot for companies that don’t want to take the responsive ability to actually pay people a fair wage. Which you truly have to do because costs in Salt Lake are a lot higher, you can’t pay somebody $7.25 and expect them to survive and to you wouldn’t want to hire the people that don’t want to come because of unemployment anyways. So that’s an argument to me, that’s just an easy group of people to blame, because you don’t want to do the work to actually ensure that you find the right people.

We pay our cooks $15 an hour. And now we’re restructuring things where we tip pool between servers and cooks to ensuring that on average, all of our employees at least make between $16 to $18 an hour. Because you can’t live with anything less than that. And it’s just to me, it’s a really conscious way of trying to operate. But it comes with its challenges, but at least I know that I’m not abusing someone’s time.

Matt Rascon:  And it sounds like you’re, you’re competing. Also, it seems like with people who maybe left the industry at the peak of the pandemic, and maybe need more of an incentive to come back.

Moudi Sbeity: Yeah, yeah, I mean, this is the kind of world we’re in you, you really have to, we we can’t, and not that this is something that we did here, personally. But you can’t just, we can just operate on a strictly capitalistic structure where you take advantage of people because they need jobs, I think people have now kind of woken up to the idea that they are valued a lot more than what we used to pay them. And this is something I am in line with, too. As a person who owns a restaurant. Yeah, restaurants need to adjust and adapt to take care of their people a lot more than we used to in the past, because it truly is a family and we would not be here without our staff. I can’t run the whole show that would be impossible.

Matt Rascon:  You need them, you’re trying to take better care of them. But I’m assuming that it’s a struggle, I assume. Because I know that with restaurants, you know, the profit margin. Isn’t that great. Right? Not that high. And that’s why you’re seeing prices go up? Have you had to raise your prices?

Moudi Sbeity: We certainly did. Yeah, it’s just the prices across the board are going up. And I think what people need to understand is when you come to eat, to eat a meal, and they say, oh my god $8 for fries, a potato costs you $1. Well, you’re not just paying for a potato, you’re paying for the insurance for grant, for gas, for people, for food costs for somebody to bring the food, to you to wash your plate. There’s just a lot more costs involved in that. It’s going to cost you a lot higher now to go out and eat than it used to five years ago, because everything is just way more expensive. Now.

Matt Rascon: How are you? How are other neighbors, friends in the in the industry doing? Are you seeing people that are struggling a little bit more?

Moudi Sbeity: It’s tough. Yeah, I mean, there are not enough cooks, there aren’t enough servers. It’s been hard. And the amazing thing is, is that now that hopefully most people are vaccinated and life is back to some sort of normalcy. So now we have a lot more people that live here that want to go out and eat, and not enough people to make the food or to work the jobs.

Matt Rascon: When you’re looking for cooks when you’re looking for these workers, what experience do they need? Do they need experience?

Moudi Sbeity: Yes, I mean, cooking at home is not the same as cooking at a restaurant. So experience is great. What I look for, mostly is really personality. Our kitchen is unlike most restaurants, you won’t see swearing or shouting or yelling or a lot of like, anger. That’s a red line for me. Because we’re all about inclusion and acceptance and compassion and kindness and love. And so our kitchen is really, yes, you need experience, but also, are you the kind of person that can find an inner state of peace among the chaos. And if you can maintain that and still be kind to everybody, then this is a place for you. So we’re kind of like cornering ourselves more into finding the right people. But it’s not worth hiring the wrong person. Just because you need to get the work done. And then you sacrifice the culture.

Matt Rascon: You know with the way things are now, where do you see yourself and few months, six months, a year? Still here working away? Yeah. But in a better spot?

Moudi Sbeity: Yeah, I don’t really believe things get worse ever. They’re always progressing forward. It’s just how you choose to look at that. And I always do To look at things as maybe a struggle, but underneath all of that there’s like a gift hiding. So, I’m not concerned about being in a bad space. Because even COVID, which we thought was like, the worst thing that could happen was quite a blessing and allowed us to grow in a smarter way. So things don’t happen to you, they happen for you. And so if in a year, we’re struggling harder than there’s like, something beyond that, that we need to go through. And in order to see and understand by looking at it, yeah. You kind of have to seek and stay happy and peaceful.

Matt Rascon: That does it for us this week here on KSL+, I’m Matt Rasoc. Thanks for joining us, and we’ll see you again next week.

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