Full capacity, not enough staff: Local restaurants make service changes amid hiring challenges
Diners are back in force, but many local restaurants are struggling to fill open positions
For the restaurant industry, the end of pandemic restrictions and the start of summer were supposed to signal the beginning of a fresh start. And while diners are back in full force, a growing list of challenges is preventing restaurants from keeping up with the pent-up demand.
“We’re all getting hit with this one-two punch,” said Matt Marple, owner of 7 Hermits Brewing Company, which has locations in Vail Village and Eagle Ranch. “We should be rejoicing and feeling happy that everything is re-opened, but we’re all fighting all these different issues and it’s twice as challenging as it ever has been.”
The primary challenge facing not only local restaurants and restaurants nationwide, but most service industries, is hiring. With a slew of possible reasons for the workforce shortage — including the lack of affordable housing, the extra $300 a week in stimulus benefits and the mass exodus of workers from Eagle County last year during the shutdown — the outcome is that restaurants are not even receiving applications for open positions.
Marple said that he has been trying to hire for cook positions since January and has not received applications. Yuri Kostick, the owner, operator and managing partner at Boneyard in Eagle Ranch, said that his restaurant has had job postings up for four months and hasn’t received a single application.
“No one is even coming out and applying,” said Rodney Johnson, the general manager at Los Amigos in Vail. Johnson added that the lack of J-1 visas — which are temporary work visas granted for foreign employees — has also contributed to the shortage.
With everyone hiring, though, there’s no better time to get out there, said Jaimie Mackey, co-owner of The Assembly. “If people want to be in the hospitality industry, I think don’t wait to apply for a job. All of us would love to have you,” she said.
Some restaurants locally have had some success in hiring from one group of residents: teenagers.
Kostick leveraged his own teenage sons to find staff for the summer. Currently, he said only four of the restaurant’s front-of-house staff are over the age of 21.
“I’ve been in Eagle for 20 years, raised my family here, and I am lucky enough to have three teenage boys, and so I know a lot of teenagers,” Kostick said. “I basically hired the lacrosse team, the hockey team, the women’s volleyball team. And if we didn’t have that, we would be in a world of pain and suffering right now.”
“We are literally calling friends and getting creative on how we get people in,” Marple said.
Other restaurants are trying to implement new hiring practices to try and attract applicants and retain employees.
“We are actively pursuing expanded tactics to hire new staff members,” said Ian Maxwell, general manager of Fall Line Kitchen in Vail. “I’m offering signing bonuses, I’m offering higher wages than we’re used to, and that’s just to attract people to be in the kitchen, in our support staff.”
While some of these employment challenges were certainly exacerbated by the pandemic, some have existed for a while — namely the lack of affordable housing — and have no end in sight.
“The challenges that we’re seeing across the country, especially with staffing, is nothing new to us in the Vail Valley, we’ve been dealing with these problems for a long time,” said Joe Griffith, the general manager at the Beaver Creek Chophouse. “It’s about being creative with hiring and scheduling and knowing that sometimes you’re going to be understaffed. That’s the big thing right now.”
Full capacity, limited hours
Getting creative in the face of hiring challenges has led restaurants across the valley to implement changes to hours and days of operations, a cruel twist for a battered sector of the economy after local restaurants were finally given the green light to operate at full capacity when the last of the county’s COVID-19 public health orders were lifted in late May.
Los Amigos in Vail has made several changes to hours and days of operation. Earlier in the year, it was only open for lunch on Mondays and fully closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“We talked to the staff and got them online with us as far as working a little bit longer shifts, and we were able to extend our days so we could get through those challenges,” Johnson said. Now, the restaurant is open seven days a week, but it is still only open for limited hours Monday through Wednesday.
7 Hermits has two locations, and while its Vail Village location has remained consistently busy throughout the year, Marple has had to close the Eagle location two days a week “because I can’t get help.”
The Assembly in Eagle opened its doors for the first time last summer. And while opening a restaurant during a pandemic came with its own set of challenges, the owners have had to be adaptable with their operations to survive and thrive.
When it first opened, The Assembly was open seven days a week with a daily happy hour. Since then, the restaurant has eliminated happy hour, did several months of takeout only, and is now open five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday.
“As much as we would love to be open seven days a week — and we know that we’re leaving that money on the table — we need at least a half dozen more employees to do that, because most of our staff works for us full time,” Mackey said.
Business model changes
While some restaurants have stayed open seven days a week during normal operating hours, all have had to get creative to offer service amid challenges.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve changed my business model in the last 18 months, probably 18 times,” Kostick said. “It’s just been a constant re-evaluation and adaptation to the regulations and adaptation to the market, it’s been a roller coaster, there’s no question.”
For Kostick and Boneyard, this included implementing a new point-of-sale system. Rather than guests being served in the traditional manner with a waiter or waitress serving the table, the restaurant is utilizing technology to have guests order and pay on devices.
“There’s this notion that the pandemic fast-forwarded life by five years. We’re buying into that,” Kostick said. “We don’t have the capacity to have waiters at every table and your traditional restaurant — what we all grew up with — I think that’s the window.”
7 Hermits has also made moves to automate some of its processes. “We were pretty early on adopting moving away from servers,” Marple said. “The whole business model for restaurants has to change, because the customer is only willing to absorb so much increase, even though we’re being slammed with increases from every direction.”
This includes a new point-of-sale, which allows guests to do QR ordering from the table. “Honestly, if we didn’t have that, my Eagle location might not even be open right now,” Marple said.
In some cases, restaurants are resorting to seating slower in order to continue providing consistent service to guests.
“We have to be slower in some ways in terms of, if we don’t have staff we can’t provide service,” Maxwell said.
However, this has started to shift in a positive direction for Fall Line Kitchen and Cocktails, which as it was able to hire more bar staff was able to start offering a late night bar program.
“I just needed the time, I didn’t have the people to turn over our service from lunch until dinner. Now that I have those people in place, I can start offering that service,” he said.
Changing with the supply chain
The staffing problems causing these changes also extend externally and run throughout the industry’s whole supply chain.
According to Marple, food costs have increased from the previous year anywhere from 30% to 40%, “if you can even get the product.”
For Maxwell and Fall Line Kitchen and Cocktails, this has meant remaining nimble with the menu, which aims to make food from scratch and use the most local products it can.
“We would’ve loved to have run with a set menu for the entire summer, and because of not being able to get the product that we want, I have to change my menu, sometimes two, three times a week for different items,” Maxwell said.
While Fall Line is making no attempts to automate ordering, Maxwell noted that the quick changing of menus has led to a continued reliance on QR menus. “To give people QR codes and keep people off of their phones and provide a larger format for people to be able to read, I’m going to begin providing iPads for the tables instead of paper menus. I will do a mixture of those things.”
Adapting to a new normal
The restaurant industry is notoriously agile and resourceful. Throughout the pandemic, owners and operators have had to make continual changes as the circumstances continue to change.
At Boneyard, Kostick embraced its outdoor dining and seating area and took the opportunity to build an outdoor stage for live music, which it will continue to utilize going forward.
“It’s hard to say overall that this whole pandemic has been positive, because obviously it’s not positive. However, the changes we’ve made in our business, I’m optimistic about it,” Kostick said.
Many took time in the shutdown to finesse and rebuild certain aspects of their restaurant.
Maxwell said that Fall Line Kitchen and Cocktails completely changed its approach to cuisine to provide a higher level of service in Vail.
“We had read the tea leaves in terms of what our guests would want,” Maxwell said. “We took it as a really good opportunity to retool and even in some places, re-invest in some equipment and in some menu design and things to provide less of a casual and more of a mountain style of fine dining.”
At 7 Hermits, Marple took the chance to remodel the Eagle location’s kitchen and revamp his staff.
“I invested when things were closed and we started planning this out coming into this year so we would have new things like doing brunch. And that brunch has just gone over like crazy,” he said.
Asking for patience
Ask any restaurant owner what they want people to know right now about the state of their industry and every response is sure to include one word: patience.
“If you’re going somewhere where they’ve cut their hours or they’re understaffed or whatever it is, just be patient with them because I promise, everybody is doing the best that they possibly can with whatever they have,” Griffith said.
Regardless of the challenges, local restaurants are happy to be back and are continuing to move forward one day at a time.
“Seeing people come together and have that social experience, have good food; it feels really good,” Kostick said.
And as far as their other requests? Just keep eating and dining.
“Please keep supporting local restaurants,” Mackey said. “We’re here to take care of each other and we want to encourage everybody to do the same. And just because we’re not at a limited capacity or not wearing masks, doesn’t mean we don’t need and really, really value that community support.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.