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People are vaccinated and ready to dine out — but restaurants say they can't find workers

A Florida McDonald's is actually paying potential employees to come in and interview.
Many restaurant workers just aren't available like they once were.
Many restaurant workers just aren't available like they once were.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

The weather is warming up and more people are getting vaccinated each day, which means that people have been returning to restaurants in a big way. But one problem that the industry faces is a serious labor shortage to meet the demands of their eager customers. From fast food to fine dining, the service industry is in serious need of staff members. Many workers are still out of work due to COVID-19 fears or because they're waiting to get vaccinated. Others have moved due to the pandemic, or been scooped up by companies like Amazon that have been hiring workers in droves.

One restaurant, Mr. Q Crab House in Hollywood, Florida, even went so far as to hire robots due to a lack of employees.

Their "new friends" greet guests, show them to tables, and even bring out their food.

“In January, 7% of restaurant operators rated recruitment and retention of workforce as their top challenge; by March that number had risen to 25%," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for research at the National Restaurant Association, in a statement emailed to TODAY Food. "Prior to the pandemic, recruiting and retention of employees had been the industry’s top challenge for many years. As the weather improves and more state restrictions are lifted, restaurant traffic will increase and that will create a greater need for employees."

Riehle said that with fewer people in the workforce, the stimulus supports still in place, worker safety concerns and much greater competition with other industries for workers, operators are returning to pre-pandemic recruitment techniques for hiring. These include higher hourly pay rates, additional benefits and professional development opportunities, among others. "All restaurant sales are local, so in the end, local market forces will impact not only the increase in needed workforce, but also the particular incentives needed to recruit those employees,” he said.

At Dirty Habit, a restaurant and cocktail bar in Washington, D.C., general manager Robert Micheli said that while he hasn't gone so far as to offer incentives, he has been extremely flexible with scheduling requests and understands if new team members need to hold down more than one job during this time.

"Each day we get more and more requests for private events, groups wanting to come and celebrate a promotion or birthday," Micheli told TODAY. "I don’t want to turn any business away, but it would make any manager feel a little nervous seeing 100-plus guests reserved for the evening and only a handful of professional and skilled team members." Micheli said he's been able to make it work, but that it will be a while before business gets back to where it was pre-pandemic and that he'll need more service team members to make that happen.

"Week after week we see the reservations grow," he said. "People want to be out and social again. If there weren’t restrictions in place I think we could easily be at full capacity every weekend and at brunch, especially on good weather days."

Even fast food has felt the labor crunch. Business Insider reported that a McDonald's in Tampa, Florida is even offering $50 to potential employees just for interviewing. In an email, McDonald's USA said that they are deploying various programs at the local restaurant level — from pay incentives, including appreciation pay, sign-on and referral bonuses and benefits like offering paid time off — during their hiring efforts. They said that hiring typically ramps up this time of year, and that currently mid-Michigan locations are looking for 1700 workers while their restaurants across Texas seek to hire 25,000 new employees.

"Recruiting, hiring, training and retention of talent has been and will likely remain the challenge for the restaurant industry even without factoring in the challenges of the pandemic," Tim McIntyre, executive vice president of communications for Domino’s Pizza said.

"The challenge for us also includes that we opened a few hundred stores in 2020 and the majority of our existing stores just kept getting busier," he said. "In fact, about a year or so ago, when we saw businesses closing, we went public announcing that we were hiring tens of thousands of people, specifically to help those who had been displaced from their jobs."

IHOP will be hosting a National Recruiting Day on May 19.

“As the country begins to reopen and state mandates are lifted, we know our guests are eager to begin dining out," Jay Johns, president of IHOP said. "In partnership with our franchisees, our priority is ensuring that IHOP restaurants are properly staffed and equipped to deliver the best possible experience for all guests. As a result, our franchisees are currently looking to add 10,000 new team members via part-time and full-time roles across more than 1,600 IHOP restaurants here in the U.S.”

But the fact of the matter is, many restaurant workers just aren't available like they once were.

"The other hard part is that many workers moved back to their family homes, and now they can’t commute back to the city," Micheli said. "The talent pool is so much smaller now because of it."

That being said, Micheli points out that managing a smaller staff does have its advantages. "Everyone understands that we are a small team and that calling out is not really an option. The hard part is controlling the books and not being able to take that extra walk-in all the time because you have to be conscious of how many tables are already seated. Concerns like spacing between tables, overloading servers and the kitchen's ability to keep up with orders coming in were are all less of a concern with appropriate staffing levels."

Still, it's a positive sign that people are returning to their favorite eateries in droves.

"As proud members of the restaurant industry, we’re grateful that restaurants of all types have begun to reopen, even if they compete with us, because the industry has long been a terrific way to get a first job, many of which can lead to career jobs," said McIntyre. "We’re proud to be part of it."