Asheville restaurants: Staffing crisis comes at crucial time as capacity rules relax
ASHEVILLE - It's spring, the tourists have arrived and Gov. Roy Cooper recently relaxed capacity restrictions for state bars and restaurants.
As of March 26, restaurants, breweries, wineries and a few other similar businesses can up capacity to 75% indoors, 100% outside. Bars and entertainment venues increase to 50% capacity, indoors or out. The 11 p.m. on-site alcohol curfew has also been lifted.
That spells more customers, but it also means headaches for some local business owners who say they're struggling to staff their restaurants.
Caylea Jenkins, a bartender who co-created the Asheville chapter of ROC United, a restaurant worker advocacy group, is one of many workers leaving the industry this year.
"The pandemic has made a lot of us take a cold, hard look at the industry we always thought would be there," Jenkins said, as she prepared for her last weekend bartending before moving to a customer service position in the banking industry.
Her chief motivation for leaving: finding the stability the pandemic robbed.
"After almost 11 years in the industry, I saw it crumble before my eyes," she said.
Jenkins said the pay at her new job is about the same, but she wants medical and dental insurance. Fewer than a third of nationwide restaurants offer such benefits, according to a 2019 survey by point-of-sale software company Toast.
"When I get sick, I want to be able to take care of myself," Jenkins said. "And the fact is, we're not seeing that in the restaurant industry, which sometimes leaves a lot of the human aspects out."
Jenkins said restaurant owners aren't maliciously withholding benefits. They, too, are struggling after a particularly unstable year.
"But at the end of the day, it's still a problem," she said. "A lot of workers, that's what we're looking for and it's not a big ask — I want to do more than just survive."
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'A workers' market'
With the pandemic still a factor, getting sick is still a concern as tourists from states with more relaxed COVID mandates use Asheville as a playground.
Many customers have acted for months as though the pandemic was over, refusing sanitizer or declining to keep a secure distance, Jenkins said.
"That's a red flashing light that the general public just does not know how to behave," she said. "We've lost respect for our fellow humans."
Some workers are leaving the industry for similar reasons, while others say they deserve more pay.
An anonymous restaurant worker responding to a Citizen Times inquiry on a local Facebook group for industry employees said restaurants should "pay more than Whole Foods." The majority of respondents answered similarly.
Jenkins said restaurants without the cash to compete might try to lure staff with affordable benefits like shift meals and flexible schedules.
"Owners have to be more creative at the end of the day, because it's a workers' market and we have our pick of the jobs right now," she said.
Increased demand means experienced staff have their pick of restaurants with better pay and benefits, said Creekside Taphouse co-owner Kim Murray.
"They're negotiating the best deal, and you can't blame them," she said.
Murray ticked off the positions her East Asheville restaurant is trying to fill: front of house manager, line cooks, a host and some food runners.
She's been working some of those positions herself, while her partner, Anthony Dorage, works in the kitchen.
Her restaurant, which attracts customers for its outdoor space and casual neighborhood atmosphere, has relied on two rock-solid line cooks for the duration of the pandemic, Murray said.
Still, they need help feeding the customers who have begun to come in steadier spurts as the weather warms and capacity rules relax. "They can only pump out so much," she said.
To take some pressure off, Murray has had an ad out for a line cook for a month now, with pay dependent upon experience. For the first two weeks, she received only one resume.
She figures some available workers have delayed working in public using stimulus money and unemployment benefits. Others have landed jobs in more predictable industries.
"They were smart," she said. "They went where the money was, and they've settled into that. We've lost a whole pocket of people."
'We're in it to win it'
Asheville Independent Restaurants executive director Jane Anderson agreed the pandemic's loosening grip has created opportunities for workers to be choosy.
She estimated local AIR-member restaurants employed about 6,000 people pre-pandemic, a number she thinks is now below 2,000.
It's not for lack of available work. Nearly every restaurant under AIR's umbrella is hiring, she said, which is why one of the association's priorities is helping member restaurants recruit and keep workers.
Still, staffing issues are not restaurant-specific, said Anderson, who recently fielded a call from a recovery center looking for workers. "It's not just restaurants, it's everybody," she said.
Restaurant owners are a resilient bunch, and if they can get through a pandemic they'll likely weather this storm too, she added.
"If people are still in business today, it's because they've worked their butts off," Anderson said.
Still, staff shortages can't always be fixed with elbow grease. They translate to longer waits and overburdened workers.
During busy surges, Murray sometimes has to keep a few tables vacant to avoid overloading the staff. Customers, however, are reluctant to stand around when they see empty space.
"I say, 'I can seat you there, but you'll have to sit there for 30-40 minutes before anyone can even get to you," Murray said. "And they're just baffled."
Creekside's casual menu is affordable despite its emphasis on local and sustainable meat. That's part of the reason why, even when the house is packed, the profit margins are slim, Murray said.
Meanwhile, both food costs and what's considered a living wage for the Asheville area are skyrocketing.
Murray knows that in a competitive market she has to offer competitive wages, but it's hard for a neighborhood restaurant to compete with downtown venues.
"We're coming out of the pandemic, so how much do we give without sacrificing ourselves?" Murray said. "We don't want to promise the whole cow and then have to shut the whole place down."
For now, Murray and Dorage continue to look for help while waiting tables and moonlighting in the kitchen, respectively.
"Anthony always says COVID is the gift that keeps on giving," said Murray. "But we're in it to win it, and we're going to do what we have to do."
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Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, and has been a staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times since 2012. Lunsford is a former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.
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