CORONAVIRUS UTAH

Restaurant Owners Struggling To Find Workers As Business Picks Back Up

Aug 6, 2021, 10:59 PM | Updated: Aug 7, 2021, 12:50 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Business in the restaurant industry has bounced back in recent months, but many restaurant owners are struggling to keep up because workers haven’t come back.

You don’t have to think too far back to recognize the restaurant scene has come a long way since 2020, when COVID restrictions forced restaurants to close, and instability, fear of the virus and layoffs drove away customers and employees.

“COVID was hard for everybody,” said Moudi Sbeity, owner of Laziz Kitchen, located in the Granary District in Salt Lake City.

For some, the pandemic was too much.

Like many others, Laziz Kitchen adapted and survived, turning to takeout food and relying heavily on pandemic relief from the federal government.

“I think that’s what that year required everybody to do,” Sbeity said.

More than a year later, customers are back.

“What’s crazy is people are going out in droves right now. People have been stir crazy over the last year,” said Michele Corigliano, executive director of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association.

But now, Sbeity and other restauranteurs face a different kind of challenge: finding enough workers to keep up with demand.

Sbeity said he has been more fortunate than others. He attributes that to the culture they’ve created at Laziz Kitchen. But he still is short on servers and cooks in the kitchen.

“Three years ago, you could hire a cook at $12 an hour, and you had a lot of cooks wanting to work,” he said.

Today, he said, “on average, all of our employees at least make $16 to $18 an hour because you can’t live on anything less than that.”

“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,’” Corigliano said. “I have seen up to $2,000 signing bonuses.”

But wages aren’t the only thing that former employees are looking for.

Former server Sybley Wozmak was laid off when the restaurant she worked for closed down at the end of 2020. She described the job as “incredibly frustrating” because of her interactions with customers and her financial dependence on tips that sometimes didn’t come.

Since then, she’s pursued her passion for dancing and has become a phlebotomist, which she said offers her greater stability.

“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%,” Wozmak said.

Another challenge facing the hospitality industry is food costs have gone up. And when you’re paying more for labor and for the ingredients to make the food, the menu takes a hit.

Laziz Kitchen is one of countless restaurants where customers will notice higher meal prices.

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Restaurant Owners Struggling To Find Workers As Business Picks Back Up