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As if there haven’t been enough challenges to dining out over the past 18 months, you may be experiencing something new lately: You can’t eat at your favorite restaurant because it’s closed. From not reopening on certain days or for certain meals, to closing suddenly for the night, to shuttering permanently, some restaurants aren’t able to open for service despite demand and lifted pandemic restrictions. So what’s going on?
Many restaurants simply don’t have enough workers. According to a summer survey from the Colorado Restaurant Association, more than 91 percent of member restaurants reported they’re struggling to hire enough employees. As a result, 80 percent say labor is their most increased cost since the pandemic hit in March 2020.
That’s been the case at Uptown’s Coperta, where on occasion, the restaurant had to suddenly close for dinner service because of a lack of workers. Like most restaurants, it’s actively hiring and not fully staffed. Coperta reopened when COVID restrictions lifted with just enough workers to staff a five-night rotation. The strategy was for employees to work in rotating shifts (that also limited exposure to others), but if someone went on vacation or had the sniffles, the whole operation was in jeopardy. The team is still working through these challenges in a time when the Delta variant has created uncertainty around dining out and there are fewer people applying for restaurant jobs.
“There’s the challenge of COVID protocols—if someone has the most minor symptom, we don’t let them work,” says Aileen Reilly, co-owner of Coperta. “We follow the CDC guidelines strictly. It’s not necessarily a COVID case, but you just don’t let people [experiencing symptoms] come into work. To keep up our standards of guest service and safety, we have to have a certain amount of people.”
Besides the occasional surprise dinner closure, Coperta has also reduced the days and hours its open. Pre-pandemic, it offered lunch five days a week and dinner daily. With a limited team, the restaurant is only open for dinner five days a week, and lunch isn’t even an option. Remaining closed for those two days gives their overworked staff a breather, so everyone gets that guaranteed two days off per week, Reilly says.
Other restaurants are employing similar strategies, like Josh Wolkon’s Ace Eat Serve, which hasn’t been open Mondays and Tuesdays since the start of the pandemic to give workers a break. “A big part of the labor shortage is people got out of the business. We’re focused on how do we attract people to the business, and how do we make this sustainable,” Wolkon says. “There is such thing as a good restaurant company and a good restaurant job.”
Part of Wolkon’s plan for improving restaurant industry culture involved reprioritizing. Pre-pandemic, Wolkon’s Secret Sauce restaurant group counted four eateries—Vesta, Steuben’s, Steuben’s Arvada, and Ace Eat Serve—in its ranks. Now it’s down to two neighboring restaurants—Ace and Steuben’s—in the Uptown area. Wolkon recently closed Steuben’s Arvada in order to focus the group’s energy, efforts, and resources on the two busiest restaurants.
“Ultimately it’s a long-term lifestyle decision for myself and for the company to say, ‘Hey, let’s just dump all our resources into these spots side-by-side and take care of our people.’ The worst thing that can happen now is you burn out the people you have…I think we need to redefine what it means to work in a restaurant. I’m excited. With a little more bandwidth, we can continue to grow our reputation as a great restaurant employer,” he says.
Central Park’s Cattivella has reduced its days open from seven to five because of staffing issues, too. Owner Elise Wiggins says she’s had difficulty rehiring front-of-house workers, with one former staff member telling her he didn’t want to return because of the increased unemployment benefits.
“I had to try and hire people without that same level of experience,” Wiggins says. “Then I got regulars saying ‘This isn’t the same; your service.’ I get it. But what am I going to do? I try to be as honest as possible. We’re struggling, we’re trying, we’ve got new people. Just please be patient. We’re all struggling with that.”
She says she’s already seen an uptick in applications in September. (Federal pandemic unemployment benefits expired the week ending September 4.) Still, she can’t help but feel a little frustrated. “I’m almost side-eyeing people applying after September,” she says. “I’m questioning their character. I wasn’t raised to kick back and get free stuff. I truly believe in team. The people I have working for me now are team players.”
But for some former restaurant employees, returning to a hospitality job is a difficult choice. Heather Carr is a 12-year hospitality industry vet who left her role as executive chef at Footers Catering at the onset of the pandemic. As a primary caregiver for a mother with a serious autoimmune disease, she felt the time was right to exit the catering industry in the interest of protecting her mother’s health.
“I had to make the decision that my health and my mom’s health is more important than anything,” she says. “Never did my job make me choose between those things—choose between health and income—and unfortunately because of the nature of the beast, that’s what happened. If you’re wanting to stay in this line of work in a restaurant or a catering company, you are exposing yourself.”
When she left Footers, Carr started working as a private chef, cooking only for a limited number of clients to reduce her exposure. She recently combined her interests in food and health by going back to school for a degree in integrative healthcare, with plans to potentially continue on to medical school. “All it took was for me to slow down a little bit,” Carr says. “Instead of ‘I’m a chef and that’s what I’m good at and that’s what I have to keep doing,’ I looked objectively at what I’m interested in in my life and professionally, and now I’m just combining them.”
Bottom line: Give your favorite spots some grace. Know that if they are open, they’re probably short-staffed, and your server could be new or juggling multiple tasks because someone else didn’t show up at work. It’s rough out there right now, and we all want to see more “Open” than “Closed” signs.