Pandemic-Ravaged Restaurants Face Hiring Challenge as Easing COVID Restrictions Spark Business Boom

According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurant sales in March jumped over 13 percent to $62 billion, the strongest one-month increase in the past 12 months.

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Jobs in the service industry are once again in demand after over a year of repeated shutdowns, supply chain breaks and business model reinventions by restaurant owners across the U.S.

Warmer weather, higher vaccination rates and easing COVID-19 restrictions are drawing more people out to restaurants nationwide, but owners face a new problem -- staffing shortages in states like California are making it tough to meet the surge in demand.

Brenda Leek has owned Curbside Restaurant in La Mesa since 2019 and, after four shutdowns in the last year, has seen an increase in foot traffic since most recently opening her doors on Feb. 17.

Part of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is still playing out for businesses, by way of hiring challenges. Some restaurants in San Diego are really feeling the pain. NBC 7's Nicole Gomez reports.

According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurant sales in March jumped over 13% to $62 billion, the strongest one-month increase in the past 12 months.

Leek told NBC 7 the boost in business is welcomed, but said she’d be able to make much more if she could hire enough people for the restaurant to run how it did pre-pandemic, now that eased restrictions allow her to do so.

“We've had limited hours because there's not enough staff,” Leek said. “I would love to be open seven days a week, but I have a very small staff and I can't work them that many hours. It's just not fair… I need three people in the kitchen, two hostesses, two bartenders, and two servers.”

Leek said the past year has been exhausting.

“I don’t know many owners that are not rolling up their sleeves and getting down and dirty themselves—I know I am,” she said.

Leek told NBC 7 she is at a disadvantage – competing against government stimulus and unemployment checks in the race to staff up.

“When I put out the ad for hire, very few people respond. The few that do respond say that they're going to come in to interview and very few arrive. I have yet to have anybody new show up for their first shift. So, we get excited… and they don't come,” she said. “So you’re open, but there’s no one to hire and our guests don’t understand that -- they have expectations… they get upset because I tell them there’s a wait and they walk off, get angry and give me a bad Yelp review… It makes me nervous because every day we don’t know how many people are going to come in.”

She said the problem is so bad, she’s had other businesses go through the restaurant’s back door to recruit the kitchen staff she does have.

Leek has been able to save her business with the help of savings and PPE loans, but said if unemployment checks continue being paid at the current amount, she won’t be able to compete.

“I don't want to sound unappreciative, but as wonderful as it is to get help -- we all definitely need the help -- we need to get people off of unemployment first,” she said. “In order to have things open, we need staff… the trickling effect that this unemployment is having on everyone, everywhere is a lot, you can't just keep giving money out to people to stay home when you're opening up the states.”

San Diego State University marketing professor Miro Copic told NBC 7 government aid isn't the only thing Leek is competing against. He said while the extra money plays a role in why people may be stalling on re-entering the restaurant industry, other factors are to blame too.

“A lot of people in higher cost cities like San Diego moved out of San Diego, a lot of people found other jobs in other sectors that were more stable and more predictable, maybe they might be going to school, they might be doing other things to change career direction,” he said. “Yes, there are still some individuals collecting more benefits than they were making in their job, but for the most part there are still people looking for work, the unemployment rate in San Diego is still north of 6%.”

Copic said restaurant owners’ patience during this difficult time will pay off.

“Between restaurants and hotels and entertainment venues… there's a lot of jobs opening up simultaneously, and it's just going to take a few months for people to kind of come off the sidelines,” he said. “The state is going to reopen… on June 15th… so restaurant owners will have some time to get ready for this and bring on new staff… they will be frustrated for the next few months, because they may not have the staffing levels that they need, but by the end of the summer they should be kind of staffed appropriately for demand in the future.”

But Leek feels like relief can’t come soon enough.

“I’ve pretty much lost everything so if Curbside doesn’t make it I don’t know what I’ll do,” she said.

Leek told NBC 7 she is planning to apply to the Biden administration’s newly launched $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund, run by the Small Business Administration and authorized as part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package signed into law by President Biden last month.

The Biden Administration says that for the first 21 days of the program, businesses owned and run by women, veterans and economically disadvantaged individuals will be prioritized.

After that, grants will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Restaurants and chains can apply for funds for up to $10 million per business and up to $5 million per location; the list of eligible expenses has been expanded to include employee benefits, paid sick leave, payroll, mortgage, rent and utilities, maintenance, outdoor seating construction, PPE and cleaning supplies; food and beverage supplies, operational expenses and principal payments for business debt.

Business owners who apply to the program this week could expect to receive their grant in 14 days. Because the funds are grants, they will not need to be paid back.

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