After weeks of working 16-hour shifts to cover for a manager who quit, Adam Kanner shut down his Fort Lauderdale juice bar Myapapaya on the River – and felt instant relief.
Overworked employees had “started dropping like flies” at Kanner’s waterfront shop on Federal Highway. So in early April – down a shift manager, two line cooks, a food runner and servers – he transferred remaining workers to Myapapaya’s flagship cafe on Sunrise Boulevard.
“I’ve been so relieved since we closed so I don’t break my back and worry as much,” says Kanner, who’s operated Myapapaya with his wife, Michelle, for nine years. “I’m not about to let staff shortages destroy what I’ve built here.”
After months of trying in vain to fill jobs – even enticing new hires with $400 bonuses – some South Florida restaurants have turned off the lights or limited hours to give servers, line cooks and managers time off to recharge. Tucker Duke’s Boca Raton location is now closed on Mondays. So is Plant Based Mafia, a restaurant that opened in April in Palm Beach Gardens. It posted on its Facebook page: “Our employees are working double shifts all week and need a day to recoup.”
The result, for customers, is a now-common scenario unfolding at local restaurants: Emptier dining rooms, slower service, longer waits to be seated.
“People get aggravated when they see an empty table and can’t have a seat, so I stack up the tables and put them in the back,” says Tom Timmons, owner of Nicoletta’s Pizzeria and Restaurant in Boynton Beach. “It’s absolutely throwing money away, but it’s better to give you good service instead of you blasting me on social media for bad service.”
Timmons, down four workers and working daily double shifts throughout April, this week decided to close Nicoletta’s on Mondays to preserve his employees’ sanity. Posting job listings on Craigslist and Indeed didn’t help, he says, because restaurant workers would rather sit at home collecting unemployment benefits.
“I get five, six people responding to my ads and no one shows up to the interview,” Timmons says. “I’ve had people come up to me and ask me to pay them off the books because they’re collecting unemployment and want to double-dip. I won’t do it.”
While some restaurant owners think collecting benefits at home may explain the employee drought, state unemployment claims are actually plummeting.
Hospitality workers in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties made 6,861 claims in January, 1,628 in February and 921 in March.
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But why? Answer: Experts say workers are leaving the industry for good. In a Florida Atlantic University poll of 4,000 hospitality and tourism workers in March and April, one-third said they’d looked for jobs in a different industry. Another two-thirds felt the hospitality sector failed to protect its employees enough against COVID-19 exposure.
“For years, the industry has struggled with a public relations problem of long hours, low pay and demanding guests,” says Peter Ricci, director of FAU’s Hospitality and Tourism Management. “The industry needs more than just a PR campaign. It needs a full overhaul in its staffing levels, pay rates and employee treatment.”
Salvatore Stellino, the 75-year-old namesake of Sal’s Italian Ristorante, says his Cypress Creek Station closed on Sundays, at first, to give employees a break. On May 11, after one overworked chef threatened to quit, Stellino closed the restaurant and relocated workers to Sal’s other 15 franchises.
“We were about to lose the cook, and you can’t open a restaurant if you don’t have a cook,” says Stellino, who plans to keep Sal’s Cypress Creek closed “for the foreseeable future.” “It’s starting to get back to normal, and people finally want to eat out again, but we have to turn away business. It’s just crazy.”
If there’s an end in sight to staffing woes, restaurateur Anthony Bruno (Runway 84, Tacocraft) thinks it will dovetail with federal jobless benefits running out in September. His Andy’s Live Fire Grill restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, for now, is closed on Sundays (and for lunch on Saturdays), because he’s unable to fill jobs for three servers, two cooks and a bartender. He says he treats employees well, and pays salaried employees more than $10 an hour. That’s already above Florida’s $10-an-hour minimum-wage hike that will take effect Sept. 30, he says.
“Truthfully, the state minimums going up will cause everything else to go up, like food costs and supplies,” Bruno says. “But when you don’t have enough staff, you have to strike a balance. You have to close. You don’t want to lose customers with poor service.”