Monica Nenni and her business partner, Mel Kutzera, probably couldn’t have had worse timing.
After opening West Central Wine in downtown Middletown in 2016, the two businesswomen opened Bandanas Italian Eatery four years later on Central Avenue in the location once occupied by Stefano’s.
Nenni, vice mayor of Middletown, said the restaurant opened “in the direct wake of the closures” of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
After opening Bandanas, they increased the workforce from four employees to 15 and quickly found themselves in need of ‘good people’ at a time when many restaurant workers were choosing to stay home and continue to receive allowances. unemployed or had found other job opportunities in different fields due to the stress and demands of the food and beverage industry.
So they enlisted the help of family and friends to fill many vacancies in the new restaurant.
The restaurant industry is mostly made up of part-time employees, Nenni said. Most staff are still in school, have other part-time jobs or are raising young families, which can lead to “unpredictable staffing issues”, she said.
Nenni and Kutzera are certainly not alone.
Job growth in the restaurant industry slowed in the first quarter of 2022, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although March marked the 15th consecutive month of employment growth in restaurants, it was also the smallest increase during this period. Overall, food and beverage establishments remain 820,000 — or 6.6% — below their pre-pandemic workforce, according to the National Restaurant Association.
It’s the hospitality industry that’s been hungry for employees since COVID-19 began in March 2020. After Governor Mike DeWine closed restaurants and bars due to fear of spreading the coronavirus, some employees have left the profession and never returned. Others collected their government assistance checks and either entered a new profession or stayed home.
This caused a trickle-down effect that is still being felt two years later. In hopes of attracting employees, restaurants, especially those in the fast food industry, have increased wages and benefits. Cane’s, for example, says employees start at $15 an hour, nearly twice minimum wage, while other restaurants offer sign-up bonuses, 401K benefits, and help with business expenses. schooling.
Every restaurant, it seems, is hiring.
Where are the high school and college students, those who usually start their career in the food industry?
“We’ve asked this question about 1,000 times over the past two years, and no one has been able to provide a concrete answer,” said Tyler McCleary, general manager of Tano Bistro in Hamilton and founding member of the Hamilton Amusement and Hospitality Association. . “The best guess I’ve had, with people I’ve spoken to, is that the hospitality industry is tough. It’s always been a tough industry. Everyone is paying more money right now. That’s just what you need to do. The entire workforce earns more, so that’s the first step. But that’s not all, because we know that young people, in particular, are not just looking for higher salaries. So we have to offer more.
Donnie Osborne, owner of The Jug, a burger joint in Middletown, said he treats his staff very well, so most staff come back every year. For him, the most difficult time for the staff is at the end of the summer when school starts.
Sometimes, he says, he depends on his wife and their three sons to fill the work schedule.
Osborne said that after months of struggling to get candidates to show up for interviews, the tide has turned. Candidates follow.
“The free money is gone,” he said. “People are coming back”
Jim Manley, chief marketing officer at Fricker’s, which has many locations in the region, said many of its employees who left during the pandemic have returned. That’s because at Fricker’s, Manley said, there are two goals: caring for customers and caring for employers.
“If we do,” he said, “everything works out.”
Still, he said, having a full staff can be difficult.
“Never a day goes by like clockwork a waitress calls and you have to make sure the job is done,” he said. “It happens every day in our stores.”
Jonathan Jones, a junior at Fairfield High School, wants to get into information technology or web design in college, and works part-time at the Web Extreme Entertainment Center at West Chester Twp. Although he does not work in the hospitality industry, he thinks that young people have not worked in restaurants in recent years because of the customers.
“I really don’t have answers for that, but I would say probably with clients these days, and they’re like Karens and stuff like that,” he said.
Conner Hamrick, 20, a 2020 Madison high schooler, attended Northern Kentucky University for a year and recently bought a house in Middletown. He works full time in customer service at Start Skydiving in Middletown.
He understands why some of his working friends have shunned the restaurant industry. He said that while it is difficult to work in restaurants, employees are sometimes looked down upon by “unfriendly” customers.
“Young people want to be respected on a daily basis,” he said. “That doesn’t always happen in these areas.”
Karley Murphy, a senior at Fairfield High School, said she plans to attend beauty school to become a hairstylist. Although she worked in restaurants, she said she quit because “we were very short-staffed.” Staff issues are a common complaint at other restaurants, an issue she’s heard about from friends and classmates. Murphy also stopped because of the schedule.
She also said understaffing was a common complaint she had heard about at other restaurants as a problem. While some restaurants offer perks like tuition assistance, sign-up bonuses, she said she would “maybe” reconsider working for a restaurant in the future.