‘In complete desperation mode’, some restaurant owners are turning to unconventional methods of hiring employees

Stephanie Giordano, who has worked in various locations and capacities in the restaurant industry since 1999, thought she’d seen it all – until a few weeks ago when someone applied for a job as a hostess at Cucina Cabana, the Italian/Continental restaurant where she’s currently the has leadership. North Palm Beach, Florida.

“This candidate wanted $25 an hour, medical, dental vision and her own parking lot,” Giordano said. “Oh, and she didn’t want to work on weekends, which is our busiest time of the week.”

Giordano says she shared this story with her 20-person staff and everyone had a good laugh. But what’s going on in the restaurant world is no joke.

After all, many restaurants across the country operate with significantly fewer staff. Capacity is limited, opening hours are uncertain, wait times for tables and food are unusually long, staff are young and inexperienced, menus are simple and customers are filing a record number of complaints, according to restaurant analytics firm Black Box Intelligence.

Pedestrians walk past a “Help Wanted” sign posted near a restaurant on June 22, 2021 in Los Angeles, California, in search of line cooks and servers. – California restaurant owners face a labor crisis during the Covid reopening and cannot find enough workers, while nationwide the National Restaurant Association has reported that some 2.5 million jobs will be lost in the food industry by 2020 and beverage industry (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

While restaurants plead for patience and understanding, they actively recruit new employees in unconventional — and sometimes controversial — ways.

Some go door to door distributing job flyers in the local community. Others are holding “open houses,” bolstering their social media accounts, and luring potential employees with lucrative benefits — from higher wages and signing bonuses to paid vacation time, enhanced benefits and free housing. A few take a more questionable approach, such as wiretapping more undocumented workers.

“They have bargaining power,” said Joel Naroff of Naroff Economics, who serves as an economic advisor to Black Box. “That’s not to say that restaurants are rushing to hire illegals, but you’re doing things you don’t want to do when there are no other choices and you want to keep the lights on.”

“I even hear stories of people being paid under the table so they can keep their benefits,” said Carlos Gazitua, CEO of Sergio’s, a South Florida Cuban family chain. “Right now, restaurants are in complete desperation mode.”

YF Meer

YF Meer

Not Kate’s Simple Eats, in Marion, Massachusetts.

“It’s always been a challenge to find good help in this industry, so I don’t see the point in encouraging new hires if you don’t know about them or if they’re going to pay off,” says owner Kate Ross. “I celebrate people who show up and give bonuses and thank you notes to employees who have been loyal.”

In addition, Ross said, she offers a competitive, living wage to her staff of nine, and most importantly, a healthy work environment in an industry known for its toxicity. “I care about the people I work with. I adore them. We’re family here,” she said.

A desirable environment is what restaurant workers ultimately look for, Naroff said.

“The shortage is [rippling through the economy] everywhere, but why do we hear so much about it in the restaurant sector in particular?” he said. “Survey after survey across the country shows that it’s the working conditions and pay that don’t compensate for the poor conditions.”

People eat breakfast at a restaurant advertising they're hiring in Annapolis, Maryland, on May 12, 2021.  year-on-year increase since 2008 when the economy recovered from the pandemic.  (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

People eat breakfast at a restaurant advertising they’re hiring in Annapolis, Maryland, on May 12, 2021. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Restaurant workers have had ample time to think and explore opportunities in other areas, Naroff said. They will eventually make a decision on whether or not to return to the restaurant world in September — when unemployment benefits end and the kids go back to school.

“That’s when the rubber hits the road,” he said.

Aside from any downside risks posed by highly contagious Covid-19 strains, such as Delta, many restauranteurs agree.

“I think September will be the beginning to the end of the labor shortage and the situation will ‘fix itself’,” said Gazitua, who leads more than 400 employees. “In fact, we’re already seeing an influx of applicants looking to return to work (10-12 applicants in the past week alone, versus five applicants in a typical week), but they’re not ready to start until then.”

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Personal Finance Journalist Vera Gibbons is a former staff writer for SmartMoney magazine and a former correspondent for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. Vera, who spent over a decade as an on-the-air financial analyst for MSNBC, currently co-hosts the weekly non-political news podcast she founded, NoPo. She lives in Palm Beach, Florida.