Restaurant owners discuss labor difficulties with U.S Rep. Suzan DelBene

Experienced service and kitchen staff are reportedly hard to hire as food service reopens.

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, met with a handful of restaurant owners from the Eastside of King County on July 6 to discuss some of the challenges they currently face as communities transition back to relative normalcy following the pandemic.

The restaurant owners reflected on the difficulties they have endured while adapting to keep their businesses afloat within the community as governmental support, ingenuity and business savvy helped them out of a situation that was disproportionately hard on the food service and restaurant industry.

“We are able to sit together now,” said DelBene. “But, we are a long way away from normal.”

Now as the county and the state lift restrictions and reopen the venues to their full capacity, many of the restaurant owners identified a common barrier to returning to full service — finding labor.

“The community is ready to come back and support,” said Luke Woodward, co-owner of The Grange farm-to-table in Duvall. “But finding labor is an issue.”

Sarah Cassidy, the other co-owner of the Grange, said the workers they have been able to bring on board are “willing workers,” but are also less experienced — often high school or college students who will only be able to work seasonally.

Matt Quest, owner of The Cottage bistro in Bothell, said even though governmental restrictions have eased to allow restaurants to full capacity, he has had to taper his social media marketing because his small staff can’t keep up with full demand. He said it is not uncommon for new hires to never return for work after a couple of weeks or even days. Some nights, he has to close the restaurant early because his team “literally cannot keep the kitchen open.”

Bryan Streit, who co-owners the Pizza Co-op and Alehouse in Woodinville with his wife, Christie, said he has measured the response rate of staff applicants since April 2021. Of the roughly 250 applicants he has reached out to, only about 12 percent respond. Currently, his staff is light on both servers and experience.

Impact of unemployment benefits

The idea that folks who would otherwise be servers and kitchen staff in restaurants if it weren’t for the generous unemployment benefits that were offered during the pandemic was brought up by nearly all of the restaurant owners at the table.

DelBene cited a study that compared labor stats between states that provided extra unemployment benefits versus those that offered less or ceased their programs.

She said the study showed that largely, there was not much of a difference between states that cut their benefits and those that did not, except among the people who were making less than $32,000 a year. DelBene said these were the people most influenced to not work.

In an effort to incentivize service staff with better wages, Lisa Dupar, owner of the Pomegranate Bistro in Redmond, has implemented a compensation structure that makes service staff commissioned sales people. She said a 20 percent service fee is added to the bill instead of a typical tip, and her servers make a percentage of a table’s bill.

She says some of her servers make more than $35 an hour, and the model has been shown to increase the average table bill for the business as a whole.

Dupar also raised the concern that this model does not incentivize kitchen staff and cooks in the same way because they are not commissioned and often work longer and later hours.

Sabrina Kim, owner of Shaburina in Redmond, also agreed that kitchen staff were more difficult to hire than servers. She noted that supply chain difficulties caused by the pandemic have also made overhead costs more expensive as the prices of commodities rise.

“We still haven’t found a good recipe for this,” Kim said.