Families and friends hoping to finally enjoy a meal together at a restaurant this summer may find the experience a little hard to swallow, with wait lists of up to 90 minutes just to be seated, long pauses between courses, reduced menu offerings, and unpredictable hours.
The restaurant industry has been particularly hard hit by the nationwide worker shortage, as employees recalibrate their lives after the pandemic and consider other career trajectories that offer better pay and conditions. Many customer-facing employees are staying out of the workforce due to fears that they could contract COVID-19, and some continue to collect unemployment benefits.
The resulting dearth of workers means slower service at some restaurants, bars and cafés, which is a concern not just for diners, but for the businesses who have fought hard to survive the economic damage caused by the pandemic.
Jon O’Brien, of Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, was met with long lines at restaurants both near his home and while on a trip with his family to Orlando this past month, he said. When O’Brien tried to take his three daughters and their friends out to eat in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he said they were told by multiple restaurants that waits were running over an hour — even when tables inside the restaurant appeared to be empty.
“When you have two fussy kids that are seven years old, that are starving, you don’t want to hear them whining for an hour while you’re waiting,” O’Brien said. “We even offered to split up on different tables, and they still said that would be an hour wait as well.”
After leaving the first restaurant, O’Brien said his family was still unable to find a restaurant that could seat them, so eventually they bought food at a grocery store and cooked dinner at home.
For Rhonda Atkins, who owns a franchised Skrimp Shack seafood restaurant in Winchester, Virginia, the shortage of employees is not just creating longer wait times, it's holding back her plans for expansion.
She wants to add outside dining, but is worried she won't be able to find enough staff to clean and serve those tables.
“You still have to have somebody who’s going to go out, clean up, make sure the place stays clean,” Atkins said. “And that requires staff.”
While some larger fast-food chains are offering referral bonuses, sign-on bonuses, and even free college tuition to attract workers, Atkins said offering incentives is often impossible for smaller businesses such as hers.
“I think as we get bigger it will be easier for us to get more help from the corporate side of it,” Atkins said. “But we’re still small, so there’s only so much they can do. We’re still a small business.”
Business owners say while they welcome the rise in customer volume — especially after 16 months of restrictions and closures — they worry that slow service and long waits to be seated will eventually start to have an impact on whether customers return in the future.
This has especially affected business owners in tourist hotspots, who are once again catering to visitors from across the country as travel picks up.
“You always want people to have a positive experience of going to a restaurant,” said Chris Fuselier, owner of the Blake Street Tavern sports bar near Coors Field baseball stadium in Denver. “And if they have a negative experience, like a longer wait time, then they’re probably not going to come back.”
This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.