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Durham restaurateurs struggle amid national staffing shortage

Where chalkboard easels listing daily specials and happy hour cocktails once sat outside local restaurants, their owners now post bold-faced “HELP WANTED” signs.

Durham restaurateurs say they were lucky to survive the worst of the pandemic. But just as they were growing hopeful about reopening, they were hit with an unexpected obstacle: finding cooks, cashiers, dishwashers, bartenders, waitpersons and other workers.

“People are leaving the industry in droves now,” said Wyatt Dickson, owner of barbecue restaurant Picnic. “Restaurants will have to change their business models to account for having fewer employees that aren’t as experienced. That’s the new normal.”

In May, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 1.2 million job openings in the restaurant industry, the highest monthly figure since 2000. There aren’t enough people who want to fill those jobs.

“Restaurants will have to change their business models to account for having fewer employees that aren’t as experienced,” Picnic owner Wyatt Dickson said. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Picnic, located off Cole Mill Road, needs twice as many employees as it  has right now, Dickson said. With his current low staffing numbers, he can’t open indoor dining or offer full service outdoors. So his customers must order online or at a takeout counter and then bring their own food to outdoor picnic tables. 

Instead of servers and bartenders, this new model requires cashiers, food packers and telephone operators. Unfortunately for these workers, their new roles involve little or no interaction with tipping customers. Picnic’s best servers used to make well more in tips than they would from their hourly wages, Dickson said, so for them working at the restaurant is now far less lucrative. 

To make up for the shortfall in earnings, he implemented a service charge so that when customers pay their checks, the gratuity is already included. 

Customers did not welcome the change. They complained that their meals are more expensive and that their power to decide about tipping has been taken away from them.

“There are people who feel that the restaurants are taking advantage of COVID and adding a service fee. But no, we’re definitely not. We’re just trying to find a way to make it,” Dickson said.

“This staff shortage has made it difficult to uphold the standards that we were used to as far as ticket times and quality service,” said Ryan Jones, general manager of GRUB Durham. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

GRUB Durham, a popular Southern brunch spot, is also struggling to make do with fewer employees. GRUB sits on Chapel Hill Street, where patrons fill outdoor tables and a rooftop bar that looks out over the busy road. In the kitchen, it’s even busier. 

“Nobody can get sick or go on vacation now,” joked general manager Ryan Jones. 

GRUB hasn’t been able to accept as many guests as Jones would like because the restaurant simply wouldn’t be able to handle it, he said. In the kitchen, two line cooks are performing the job of four.

“This staff shortage has made it difficult to uphold the standards that we were used to as far as ticket times and quality service,” Jones said. “Is this sustainable long-term? Absolutely not.”

A new kind of waiter

While some restaurants have switched to takeout only and shortened their hours in response to the staffing crisis, others have turned to QR codes.

Patrons at Eastcut and other restaurants use QR codes to read the menu, place their orders and make payment, all on their phones. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

The introduction of QR codes in restaurants allows customers to view a menu, place an order, and pay their check all from their phones, reducing the need for waiters and cashiers.  

Brad Bankos and Steve Wuench, co-owners of Eastcut Sandwich Bar, were quick to implement the new technology. 

Eastcut patrons no longer choose from the offerings on a floor-to-ceiling blackboard menu inside, because they no longer are allowed inside the restaurant. Now they sit outside and place their orders by scanning laminated QR codes taped to patio tables. 

“There will never be a line in the restaurant ever again,” Bankos said. “The whole flow and service model will look different to people.”

The way Bankos sees it, the QR code system leverages technology in a way that will both save guests time and give them more control over their experience at the restaurant.

Jones is not convinced. He refuses to use QR codes at GRUB. He doesn’t think that finding ways to eliminate the need for employees is the right solution to the staffing shortage. For him, QR codes fundamentally change the experience of eating out, making it feel impersonal and detached. 

“We don’t want GRUB to be a place that just shuffles food,” Jones said. “We want people to be able to come and see each other and interact with our staff. We want to be a neighborhood hangout.”

Dickson feels the same way and said that QR codes are not part of Picnic’s “ideal customer experience.” But if it comes down to using the technology or closing his restaurant, he’ll opt for the former. 

Still, while QR codes may keep things running smoothly in the front of the house, they can’t contribute in the kitchens where help is needed most.

Scraping the barrel

In the midst of this war for talent, restaurants are forced to fight for the most qualified applicants by luring them with benefits. 

Restaurateurs are offering perks that include flexible hours, health care reimbursement, paid time off, and free sandwiches. This help-wanted sign was posted at Devine’s Restaurant & Sports Bar. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Eastcut is one of those restaurants.

When people navigate to Eastcut’s website, the first thing they now see is a bright yellow pop-up ad urging them to apply for a job. The ad lists perks including a flexible schedule, a health care reimbursement program, paid time off, and, of course, free sandwiches.

“We’re trying to just focus on the things that we can control, because the market for jobs right now is really competitive,” said Bankos. “We have to make sure people see us as a great employer.”

In spite of their efforts, Bankos and Wuench still cannot find the number of staff they need to re-open indoor dining at their sandwich shop. Their current business model relies almost entirely on pickup orders. 

“I don’t think the 2019 Eastcut will ever exist again,” said Bankos. “We’re still serving similar food, but the operation has drastically changed.”

When Bankos and Wuench began asking workers to come back as the pandemic waned, they expected some to decline because of health concerns or a newfound preference for unemployment checks. But they were surprised to find that many of their former employees have decided to leave the restaurant world completely. 

“The restaurant industry has always been a tough one to work in, and I think in their time away many people may have found opportunities in what feel like less stressful environments,” said Bankos. 

Before COVID, Eastcut received 30 to 50 applications a week. Now they get around six at most.

GRUB saw a similar dropoff in applicants. 

When their job postings on Craigslist and Indeed stopped being fruitful, management hired a recruiting company to find ready, willing and able workers.

The recruiters have brought in more applications, but 60% of people who apply don’t come to their interview, Jones said. Of those who are offered the job, 20% don’t show up on their first day. 

At Picnic, Dickson says the most frustrating aspect of the staff shortage is knowing how well his restaurant could be doing, if only he could hire more people.

“It should be boom times. This should be a bonanza,” Dickson said. “There is pent-up demand for what I have to offer, but I’m handicapped in my ability to meet it. And that sucks. It’s like there’s money on the table, and we really need it, and we can’t reach it.”

At the top: Restaurants are fighting for the most qualified applicants by luring them with benefits. This sign was posted at Maverick’s Smokehoouse & Taproom. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Nicole Kagan