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'Trying our best.' Austin restaurants struggle to find and keep workers as COVID-19 costs continue

Matthew Odam
Austin 360
Contigo employees Katherine Curley and Chloe Fisher get ready to check in customers at the restaurant on April 27. The restaurant's outdoor seating is good for social distancing.

Interstellar BBQ chef-owner John Bates posted an ad on service industry job site Poached looking for front-of-house staff at his restaurant in Austin's Anderson Mill area. Crickets. A Craigslist version of the same produced only two applicants, neither with restaurant experience.

Contigo chef-owner Andrew Wiseheart thought an industry ready to boom after pandemic-forced hibernation would allow him to cherry pick the best talent available. The staff at his ranch-inspired restaurant near Austin's Mueller development remains incomplete.

Foreign & Domestic chef-owners Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley received a cover letter from an applicant who stated simply: “Hey, no weekends, no late nights.”

Welcome to the world of restaurant staffing in Austin, where the unemployment rate of about 5% is lower than any other metro area in the state. After pivoting, pushing and persevering through the a year of the coronavirus pandemic, restaurants are struggling to fill kitchen and front-of-house positions. What was already a problem before the pandemic has multiplied, leading to shorthanded staffs and stressed-out employees who are ill-equipped to provide high-level service and exhausted owners searching for answers in a hypercompetitive and talent-drained market.

Put simply, the jobs are coming back, but the workers are not.

Restaurant workers, who come in close contact with the public, were not designated as essential workers by the state of Texas in the first phases of vaccine rollout. Some, spun out from a year of worrying about their own personal health, have left the industry in search of more stability. 

The rising cost of living in Austin also has made service industry work untenable for many. An industry that has long battled toxic workforce problems and dealt with natural attrition is taking on more and more water. Solutions are hard to come by. 

“I thought I would have more success looking for people," Interstellar BBQ owner John Bates said of trying to hire staff at his restaurant on FM 620.

How COVID-19 affected Austin's restaurant industry

The leisure and hospitality industries comprise about 10% of the workforce in the Austin metro area, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, but the industry is struggling to attract and maintain workers.

The total number of non-farm jobs in the area is down 1.3% since March of 2020, but leisure and hospitality jobs are down about 16%. 

The sector accounted for about 134,000 jobs in February 2020. That number crashed to about 70,000 in April 2020, as dining rooms were closed in the area, but climbed back to about 100,000 by summer, where the number stayed until rising to about 105,000 in the first two months of this year and 112,000 in March.

Even with that increase from February to March as more Central Texans became vaccinated, there are still about 25,000 fewer people working in the sector than before the pandemic. 

The Texas Restaurant Association, which lobbies and advocates on behalf of thousands of restaurants in the state, says that even with restaurants willing to offer competitive wages and benefits, the problem is not one that the industry can solve on its own. 

“The public and private sector need to come together around solutions that will address this multi-faceted problem so our economy can get back on track,” Anna Tauzin, chief revenue and innovation officer at the association, told the American-Statesman in an email. “Everything from vaccine access, which we’re championing at the Texas Restaurant Association, to child care and additional supports for working families should be on the table.”

Three Texas service industry organizations launched the Great Texas Hospitality Worker Vaccine Drive on April 20 in Houston, followed by an event in San Antonio. The collaboration between the Texas Restaurant Association, Texas Food & Wine Alliance and Good Work Austin is sponsoring a vaccination drive on May 2 at Circuit of the Americas in Austin (on Friday, the May 1 drive was canceled because of expected rainy weather). A fourth event is coming up in Dallas.

Contigo employees Xante Ruiz, from left, Kendra Thompson and Dana Curley join each other in a staff meeting before the restaurant opens on April 27. Restaurant employees come into direct contact with the public regularly, and industry groups tried to get them earlier access to vaccinations. They were not designated as essential workers in the early phases.

Austin restaurant owners fatigued by COVID-19 staff turnover 

Bates, the Interstellar BBQ owner, says that with high turnover and increasingly fewer quality applicants, he has reevaluated his hiring process. The chef, who previously operated Noble Sandwich Co. and has cooked in Austin for more than 15 years, says he used to hire all of his employees himself, but he has since given his staff a say in hiring. 

“Every restaurant I worked at in the past had a core group that upheld the standards of the restaurant. You could lean on the core group that could help enforce what the vibe was in the restaurant,” Bates said. “I feel lucky out here. I have two guys who have been with me over four years now. So I’ve got a little bit of that core going on. It’s what makes a good restaurant good.”

Bates, who acknowledges that fine dining establishments have an advantage because of the opportunity for larger tips, has raised his base compensation in order to attract employees, who with tips can earn about $20 an hour. But with workers being able to walk less than a mile in any direction and find another job, the competition is strong at all levels. 

Hoover Alexander, who has run Hoover’s Cooking on Manor Road in East Austin for 20 years, has had similar struggles getting to full staffing levels. Unable to put enough people on the floor to give the service he requires of his restaurant, Hoover has closed for lunch service on some days rather than try to make do with too few workers. It’s not an easy choice.

“Every time we have to close, it costs us money and it costs the workers who would usually be working,” said Alexander, who has struggled to find a balance between serving dine-in guests and maintaining his increased to-go business. 

Contigo owner Wiseheart, who acknowledges hiring has been a big topic of conversation and consternation among his industry peers before the pandemic, says a year of pivoting and persevering has taken its toll on the industry and its workers. And with the economy reopening at a greater scale than at any time since the closures began, they are weary. 

“As we are relaunching, revamping, reopening, there is such fatigue that has set in across the board in house,” Wiseheart said. “It’s hard on the team.”

‘We’re just trying our best to get through every shift’

Ten-year Austin hospitality industry veteran Crystal Maher is not surprised that many restaurants are having trouble hiring and keeping staff.

Maher, who volunteers as an organizer for the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which advocates to improve the working conditions and lives of restaurant workers, has worked as a cashier at Via 313 since January. 

In the crush of business in recent months, Maher has seen a manager doing dishes until 4 a.m. and a stressed-out delivery driver threaten staff. She says that staff have to deal daily with at least one anti-masking customer who has no sympathy for the welfare of anyone else in the restaurant. 

“We’re just trying our best to get through every shift,” Maher said.

Maher said the pandemic has exacerbated the toll on restaurant workers, many of whom, she says, have worked for businesses that cultivate or ignore toxic workplace environments, Maher said. (She has not worked for any of the restaurant owners interviewed for this story.) 

Maher said that workers who express disappointment over management practices make themselves easy targets for retaliatory firing, which would then kill their chances at employment benefits. 

Before she landed her job at Via 313 during the holidays, Maher was considering not returning to the industry at all. Had her $75 a week from the state and $300 weekly unemployment supplement not been expiring, she would have kept herself removed from an industry that she said does not value workers. 

“It’s not a sustainable industry if you don’t take care of your workers, and it’s why it burns out so many people. And now they’re shocked that no one wants to come back,” Maher said. “We know we can survive off like nothing now because of the pandemic. So we’re just like, ‘You know what? My mental health is the most important thing now. I’m not an investor in this company. I don’t need to stay here.’”

Maher has simple advice for restaurants looking to attract and retain staff.

“You have to have a worker voice in your workplace. And it has to be a real one. Really make sure you are listening to your workers,” Maher said. “They’re not emotionally invested in you as a restaurant yet, so they’re not your friends. They’re your worker. So if they hear this performative nonsense that they’ve heard before, they don’t want to stick around any more. If you’ve said, ‘You’re part of this team, you’re part of this company,’ then you have to actually mean that... A lot of us are saying to you that we want to treat this as our career, so treat us like we’re making this a career.”

Contigo chef Andrew Wiseheart poses for a portrait on April 27 at his restaurant. Many restaurants in Austin are struggling to hire enough staff as business picks up with pandemic restrictions easing. “I don’t ever expect that we’re going to go back to normal,” Wiseheart said. “I think we’re going to carve out what’s going to be our new normal.”

COVID-19 challenges persist

Contigo’s ample outdoor seating should be an advantage. The owners want to add more tables, while continuing distancing, but they need more servers before they can increase their seating capacity. 

Those filled tables are a blessing, but one that comes with a downside. One of Contigo’s adjustments during the pandemic has been to ramp up its  to-go offerings, which account for about 15% of the restaurant’s business. They were 1% of pre-pandemic sales. But as the restaurant starts to hit capacity with more consistency, Contigo has been forced to turn off its online ordering and turn away people at the door. 

Those decisions can lead to unintended human costs that compound the financial hit. 

“These are challenges that are being added to COVID in general,” Wiseheart said. “I feel like those are some of the things that are lending themselves to fatigue. I see it on people’s faces. I have it.” 

The chef, who is down about four front-of-house and two back-of-house workers, said he believes some in the restaurant business left the industry in search of new careers. But with the number of openings slowing, he figured there would be a lot of candidates. He’s been proven wrong. 

“I don’t ever expect that we’re going to go back to normal,” Wiseheart said. “I think we’re going to carve out what’s going to be our new normal.”

Whatever the coming months and years look like, Wiseheart has a strategy for how he will create the team that navigates it with him. Resumes and skills are less important than intangibles, he said.

“We have to look for the things in people that we can’t teach them,” Wiseheart said. “We can’t teach them how to care and how to show up on time and how to be better people tomorrow than they are today.” 

He also said the industry has more work to do.

“Toxic work environment is a stigma that’s plagued this industry, and like any stereotype, it comes from somewhere. Creating a non-toxic work environment and creating sustainability and longevity is now more important than it’s been in my career,” said Wiseheart, who added that owners and managers would need to find a new level of creativity and focus to ensure those qualities.

Foreign & Domestic chef-owners Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley pose for a photo at their restaurant. “I can’t tell you how many cooks are real estate agents now," Heard said.

Lemley and Heard of Foreign & Domestic, who are looking to fill a half-dozen positions at their North Loop restaurant that has been doing brisk business in recent months, said they're seeing a complete shift in the industry. 

The couple, who also own Commerce Cafe in Lockhart, knew things had gotten dire when they started seeing cooks, not usually known for their skills in sales, leaving for careers in real estate. When the couple used to interview cooks, they’d ask the applicants what their end goals were; the answer was almost always to own their own restaurant. No longer. A recent young cook told Heard he wanted to be a veterinarian. 

“There’s no excitement and no passion anymore,” Heard said. 

The understaffing at Foreign & Domestic has led to the owners curtailing their menu, blocking off tables and limiting reservations, decisions they can’t consider as long-term solutions because of the money it costs both them and employees. A smaller staff, coupled with a hungry crowd Heard said is not only ready to come back to restaurants but ready to come back to the best service possible, makes for a stressful environment. 

“I think the people that are left are not ready for what it takes to be in an understaffed restaurant. So you get somebody in finally, and you’re still understaffed and they get overwhelmed and they just quit,” Heard said. “It’s gotten almost hopeless.”

However, there could be signs of a light at the end of the tunnel.

“We’re hired five new people this week,” Heard said. “So something’s shifting.”

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