Over the past 14 months, Michigan restaurants have been dealing with months-long closures, followed by strict capacity limits.
Now, local restaurants are struggling with severe staffing shortages, forcing them to limit the days and hours they’re able to be open.
Steve Loftis, owner of the Snug Harbor restaurant in Grand Haven, says the main concern for the upcoming summer is to recruit employees back into his business.
“There’s been several issues, but right now we are struggling to find employees to serve our guests,” said the former chairman of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association (MRLA) who has more than 40 years experience in the hospitality industry. “But state, maybe even countrywide, we’re all in the same situation.”
According to MRLA Communications and Operations Vice President Emily Daunt, staffing shortages is the most prominent issue they’re hearing from members these days.
“We know that 70 percent of operators in Michigan say staffing is more than 20 percent down, and that’s compared to the national average of 45 percent experiencing that high of a shortage,” she said.
Loftis and other restaurant owners across the country are all asking similar questions.
“What do we do about it?” Loftis posed. “How do we create a hiring interest beyond unemployment and other scenarios people are relying on?”
The Michigan unemployment rate has continued to decline, but that hasn’t trickled down into the staffing in hospitality yet.
For Loftis, it isn’t always about the pay rate, but more of a creative approach that gives the marketplace more leverage to dictate a competitive employee playing field. Loftis says his staff includes a wide range of ages who have different goals, so creating an attractive incentive plan is crucial for a return to work.
But as the spring months swing into summer, Loftis says he is hopeful that the desire to return to the workforce rekindles.
“You have to have a desire to get back into action, to have a passion for work and participate in the work environment,” he said. “In the next months, that’s our hope is for people to desire to re-engage and be productive.”
With a push toward bringing workers back, the hope is it will have a reciprocal effect on the limited hours restaurants have been forced to deal with. It’s hit home to Old Boys’ Brewhouse in Spring Lake, which used to be open seven days a week but now has trimmed its hours to just Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Old Boys’ owner Melissa Brolick says she’s had to dramatically alter her restaurant as the challenges have attacked on every side.
“There’s really not a lot of good to say about it at all different levels,” she said. “Right now, we’re operating at less than half the staff we used to have (before the pandemic).”
Loftis explained that Snug Harbor’s hours have been mightily reduced as well, including being closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
“Last Sunday we had to close because we were unable to staff,” he added. “But we’re hopeful that in the next 2-3 weeks, college and high school students will have a big interest in getting back to work.”
Brolick said the year-round staff has been happy to return to work, but it’s been the part-time employees and seasonal workers that she’s struggled to maintain.
According to a survey from the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, 9 out of 10 full-service restaurants have reported staffing levels lower than they would be were it not for the pandemic. In Michigan, full-service restaurants added 37,000 jobs in February as the dine-in ban ended, and added another 6,000 jobs in March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Loftis hopes that as the weather continues to warm up, capacity limits will also relax.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s latest “MI Vacc to Normal Challenge” includes four steps that give Michiganders an outlook on restrictions and limits based on vaccination percentages. Once 65 percent of eligible Michigan residents are vaccinated for COVID-19, a lift on all indoor capacity limits will then take place, following a lift on the gathering and face mask order once 70 percent of residents are vaccinated.
Loftis says that the 70 percent threshold will be interesting to monitor, as there are various perspectives on the vaccine.
“We’ve been listening and watching the science,” he said. “That’s a debatable opportunity in Lansing for our politicians. But that threshold might be a tough haul to get to.”
Safety remains the utmost priority, according to Loftis. The challenges of maintaining staff in a safe, secure work environment will be ongoing.
“We have to continue to work to incentivize business employment,” Loftis said. “... We need to get back to the land of the living. Everybody gets it and we know what has to be done. We want to welcome our guests and give them a great experience, and they’ve been terrific through all this. We need some leadership and clarity heading into the summer.”