For one small restaurant operator in Columbus, Ohio, the labor shortage means returning to pre-pandemic service is 'unfathomable'

  • The co-founder of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing in Columbus, Ohio, can’t find workers to fill open roles.
  • To get back to 2019 levels, he’d need at least 10 new hires, but there’s a dearth of applicants.
  • His case is just one of the many businesses facing a labor shortage in the US. 
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The co-founder of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing in Columbus, Ohio, is tired.

More than a year ago, Bob Szuter laid off most of his 80-person staff, leaving just 15 core workers to continue operating the restaurant and brewery. He wasn’t sure if his business would survive, and he had two young girls at home.

The wholesale side, which once comprised just a quarter of the business, now kept the brewery going, along with carryout and delivery operations, as the restaurant dining room remained closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Once businesses in Ohio were allowed to re-open last year, he had new challenge: operating under COVID-19 restrictions, like social distancing, capacity rules, and mask guidelines put forth by the state.

At first, customers were supportive, but as the pandemic has continued, they’ve become less enthusiastic — and more aggressive — about not wanting to wearing a mask to the bathroom or being unable to get a reservation because the restaurant has met its capacity limit. 

His latest hurdle? Finding workers to fill open positions.

Businesses across the country have been in a scramble to hire workers as more Americans receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and states begin lifting restrictions on restaurants, stores and other venues. Fast-food chains, among other businesses, have said they’re in need of thousands of workers to fill open roles.

The unemployment rate remains elevated from pre-pandemic levels and millions of people are out of work, but still there’s a shortage of applicants. That’s in part due to unemployment benefits creating a disincentive to return to work, a desire for higher wages in the restaurant industry, and the continued fear of getting sick with the virus. Plus, Szuter said, some of his former workers have left the industry after finding new roles during the pandemic.

For Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, returning to pre-pandemic levels of serving a couple hundred people per night wouldn’t be doable with the current staff, Szuter said. 

“It’s almost good that the restrictions are still in place,” he said. “Once those restrictions come off, there’s no way we could do that.”

Read more: How a burned-out business owner took a one-month sabbatical to treat the anxiety and exhaustion of his always-on, entrepreneurial life

Szuter started looking for more workers in November of 2020. 

Since then, he’s raised the minimum wage for his employees to at least $15 per hour. That’s up from about $12 per hour that backroom staff, like the cooks, used to make and far more than Ohio’s minimum wage of $8.80 per hour for non-tipped workers. He’s added hiring bonuses of $250 to $300 for open positions like dish washers, too. 

Still applicants for serving, cooking, and dish washing roles are lacking. He used to get half a dozen applications for a job opening, but now there’s hardly a response. His general manager has resorted to scrolling through social media to find anyone reporting looking for work. 

“It’s been a struggle,” Szuter said. “Just a lot of difficulty in getting people to even interview, and finding not even necessarily qualified candidates, but just candidates in general.”

After operating with a staff of about 45 for most of last year, he’s now up to 68 employees. That includes about 10 new roles he had to fill to keep up with the growth from the wholesale side of the business. 

His staff is working about 60-hour weeks, and they’re feeling burned out, he said. The restaurant has cut back even further on its operations to account for the lack of workers. Pre-pandemic, Wolf’s Ridge Brewing was open six days a week. Now, he’s down to no lunch service and dinner just Thursday through Saturday. 

He’s currently looking for two to three backroom workers and then one or two servers to open up for a few more meals each week.

“There’s still an expectation from most people that things should just go right back to what they were in 2019,” he said. “That’s just not where we are.”

To get back to pre-pandemic operations, he’d need at least 10 more workers, he said, “and that’s just unfathomable in this situation.” 

Some hospitality industry experts say hiring might be slow right now, but they expect that to change.

“Unlike the little to no lead time the government gave businesses regarding reopening guidelines, workers planning on returning to hospitality will do so in phases and it won’t happen overnight,” Alice Cheng, the CEO of hospitality hiring company Culinary Agents, wrote on Linkedin. “The gravitational pull of the hospitality industry will eventually prevail,” she wrote.

Szuter is hoping that shift comes soon.

“The biggest mental stressor for managers and myself is just trying to keep staff morale up and keep things as positive as we can,” he said.

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