Restaurants struggling to find summer help

Lily Myers travels all the way from Queen Anne to St. Michaels to work as a barista for the Blue Crab.

EASTON — As the tourism season cranks up, restaurants across the Shore are struggling mightily to find enough staff to handle the hordes of hungry vacationers.

The summer season on the Delmarva Peninsula, restaurant owners and managers said, adds a hefty percentage to their balance sheets. As one owner said, July’s income is more than double that of March’s, adding June, July and August are “vital for survival.”

Earlier this year, restaurants realized the persistent worker shortage during an upswing in business caused by mild weather for outdoor dining and reduced COVID restrictions. Staffing shortages are the latest challenges facing a sector nearly devastated by the pandemic, with massive layoffs and a disturbing number of eateries closing permanently. Local restaurant managers are frantically recruiting. Some are returning to the tried-and-true newspaper advertising while others are using social media, hosting open houses and, perhaps the most effective recruiting method, word of mouth.

At The Blue Crab coffee shop and restaurant in St. Michaels, the owner said she’s using many tools to recruit help, but hiring friends and family is her preferred method for filling open positions. “That’s the best method for us. They tend to stay around longer,” said Helen Herman.

The Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina is holding a job fair on Tuesday, May 4, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in hopes of filling a number of positions, said Lauren Hopper, area director of human resources for Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay. “We are trying many methods, word of mouth, social media, newspapers and our job fair,” she said, adding the resort has opening in nearly every department.

Inside the restaurant industry the effectiveness of job fairs is questioned, said three managers. “I’ve heard of restaurants holding job fairs and nobody showed up,” said one manager and confirmed by two others.

Many restauranteurs said new hires via word of mouth is common. One said “You can place help wanted ads or place a sign in the window, but a restaurants best source [for potential employees] are your workers.” The manager, who asked not to be identified, said social media, brings in a small pile of resumes and application, but nothing compared to an employee’s reference for the eatery.

To attract staff restaurants are offering incentives, something many have never done before.

Michael Moon, general manager of the Bridges on Kent Narrows restaurant, said he is trying a number of methods to fill openings in the kitchen. “We don’t usually have trouble recruiting,” he said. “But this season we’re offering incentives which we haven’t before” to attract employees. He would not give a dollar amount. The Bridge is hiring for a number of kitchen positions, including many year-round employees, such as dishwashers and line cooks. “These are not seasonal positions. We don’t hire kitchen staff and then have layoffs. We keep them year around,” he said.

At the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, Hopper said incentives offered include free uniforms and discounted rooms.

Restaurateurs said former employees are choosing not to return to work for a variety of reasons. Moon explained when COVID hit and restaurants either closed or drastically reduced staff, many workers left the industry for more stable employment.

The Blue Crab’s Herman believes some experienced wait staff members are leery about returning to work over continued concerns about the coronavirus. “I think it’s anxiety,” she said, adding she’s hiring kitchen and wait staff.

The National Restaurant Association said restaurant employment has risen each month in 2021, but staffing levels are still about 20 percent lower than pre-COVID levels in 2020. The Restaurant Association of Maryland estimates nearly 10 percent of Marylanders were employed in the restaurant food service sector in 2019 and in 2018 the industry’s estimated sales in the state $133 billion.

The tourists will come — that’s a given with coronavirus restrictions being eased and more residents and visitors venturing to beaches and other outdoor venues. But will there be enough staff to quickly serve the hungry and thirst vacationers? That’s to be seen. But restaurateurs plea to the public — show patience. “Please understand the staff is working as hard as they can during this time,” said Moon. “Please be patient.”

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