- "We try to create a positive work environment that can meet people's needs in life and help people get better at what they’re good at. I feel very fortunate to live in a country where I get to own my own business.” - Jason Smith, Raleigh restauranteur.
Triangle area restaurants face considerable staffing shortages heading into the holiday season, findings from the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association suggest.
The NCRLA compiled hiring data from Lightcast and Indeed and found that since the beginning of October, approximately 2,134 restaurant jobs have opened up in the Triangle area alone. This development may come as a surprise to some due to the state’s historically low unemployment rate of 3.4%.
However, these service industry shortcomings is part of a broader, statewide worker shortage. A US Chamber of Commerce study indicates that North Carolina has 55 available workers for every 100 open jobs.
“Restaurants tend to get busier during the holiday season, and it is an important time that allows you to get potential regulars into your restaurants, but we are now tasked with hiring and training new staff,” remarked Jason Smith, owner of 18 Restaurant Group and Cantina 18 during an interview with the Carolina Journal.
Smith, a Raleigh native, has served as the chef and proprietor of 18 Restaurant Group since 2006. Despite these difficulties with worker shortages, he believes there is reason to be optimistic about the restaurant industry’s immediate future.
“I would say that the holiday season is a great opportunity for folks to come and work in the restaurant industry,” he said. “If they come and enjoy it, then they can stay and enjoy our working environment along with other benefits like the financial independence of having their own job. On days that are harder to staff, I try to reward working people because they want to work hard and do a good job.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdowns by the government, restaurants across the state were forced to close their doors and lay off thousands of workers. For Smith, the pandemic’s effects are still being felt today.
“I think the biggest setback is going all the way back to the pandemic,” he said. “As the hospitality industry was shut down, and we were told to furlough everyone. We rolled into a time when businesses were very, very busy and people were hiring, but much of our workforce left the industry to work in other things and weren’t coming back. When we started to rehire, everyone else was rehiring.”
The shutdowns were especially grueling for smaller local restaurants like Cantina 18 because national chain restaurants could better absorb the financial hit Smith explained.
“Many restaurant workers were laid off and have since sought work in other fields, making it more difficult for restaurants to find willing workers,” wrote Brian Balfour, the John Locke Foundation’s Senior Vice President of Research, in an email to the Carolina Journal.
Some studies show that fine and casual dining have declined 85% and 65% respectively compared to fast-food which decreased by only 21%. Small, locally-owned restaurants were disadvantaged by the pandemic’s shutdowns, further diminishing their ability to compete with international restaurant corporations.
While the pandemic devastated local restaurants, it may not be the sole contributing factor to the current worker shortage. In fact, Balfour suggests that inflation, which reached a four-decade-high of 8.5% in 2022, is to blame for these employment shortcomings.
“Inflation certainly impacts the labor market in a few ways,” he said. “First, because of the rising cost of living, workers need higher wages to keep up. Unfortunately, over the past few years, average incomes have not kept up with inflation. Additionally, businesses, especially small businesses, can’t afford to pay higher wages to workers, making it difficult for them to attract workers. And the rising cost of benefits like health insurance pinch businesses’ budgets as well, leaving less money for worker salaries.”
The NCRLA recently launched a new hospitality industry recruitment campaign labeled “Serving Careers,” which is backed by a $5 million grant from the state’s portion of the federal American Rescue Plan. This program connects prospective employees, through the Indeed job-searching platform, to employers while also offering free industry-specific training and certification courses. The plan is intended to provide a boost to North Carolina’s hospitality industry and help remedy some of the current worker shortages.
Even with the challenges facing restaurants heading into the holidays, business owners like Smith still feel a sense of gratitude and charity that is on brand for this giving season.
“We try to create a lift-up environment that serves as a great stepping stone for folks,” he said. “We try to create a positive work environment that can meet people’s needs in life and help people get better at what they’re good at. I feel very fortunate to live in a country where I get to own my own business.”