Lauded by the likes of Southern Living, the James Beard Foundation and Food Network, Charlottesville has earned a reputation as a great restaurant town.
But keeping those restaurants staffed has become a serious challenge.
For years now, Jon LaPanta has been trying to fill three positions at his downtown sandwich shop.
He’s raised wages to lure in applicants, but like so many restaurant owners in the area, his hiring search is still coming up short.
“The folks we’ve had come in and actually attempt the position haven’t lasted but a couple days. They come in, they work some shifts and then they’re gone,” the owner of Baggby’s Gourmet Sandwiches told The Daily Progress.
“We think we’re pretty easy to work with,” LaPanta said with a laugh, unable to explain the hiring struggle. “Since the pandemic, people have disappeared.”
Baggby’s is not unique. Restaurants across the region are struggling to find staff, yet another example of how COVID-19 has changed life for workers, businesses and consumers alike.
On the Downtown Mall alone, the Bebedero is now closed on Sundays because it can’t find enough kitchen staff, Whiskey Jar has raised its prices to counter the higher wages it’s now paying workers and Jack Brown’s Burger Joint struggles to fill every staffing position available.
To be sure, the industry is accustomed to high turnover. Many owners regularly consider new applicants, keeping their options open in case an employee decides to leave.
“You lose people in the restaurant business so you’re never not hiring, you’re never not taking applications, you’re never sitting back and being complacent,” Derek Bond, franchise owner of the Melting Pot and Moe’s Original BBQ, told The Daily Progress.
But keeping up with turnover requires having interested job applicants, and those have become difficult to come by.
“It’s never been like this before,” Chris Hartwell, manager at the Whiskey Jar, told The Daily Progress. “I feel like it’s hard to find people that want to come back to work in the traditional sense.”
River Hawkins is co-owner at the Bebedero and recently sold Milkman’s Bar at the Dairy Market food hall on Grady Avenue. He’s had a problem finding worker at both venues.
“It was a whole nightmare,” Hawkins told The Daily Progress. “Even when the pandemic lifted we were still struggling really hard to find any kitchen staff [at Milkman’s].”
“We were hiring 15-year-old kids to serve tables because we couldn’t find anybody. Nobody wanted any work,” Hawkins continued.
Wineries don’t appear to be having the same problem, at least not in the tasting room. James King, co-owner of King Family Vineyards in Crozet, counts himself fortunate that his business has largely been spared. But if his vineyard included a restaurant, it might be a different story.
A vineyard restaurant is like “having a business within a business,” King said.
George Hodson knows all about that. The manager of Veritas Vineyard and Winery and president and co-owner of Flying Fox Vineyard, both in Afton, sits with King on the Virginia Wine Board, which promotes the interests of wineries and vineyards throughout the commonwealth.
“The place where it has been the most directly felt is in the kitchens across the entire country,” Hodson said of the restaurant labor shortage. “And ultimately it just comes down to the factor of paying people more.”
In his tasting room, for instance, staffing hasn’t been an issue. He thinks that’s at least partly because people working those jobs can maintain fairly normal hours.
“The trouble is getting people willing to slog it out in the kitchen at 9 or 10 p.m.,” Hodson said. “It’s a hard life being in the kitchen. You work late, you’re on your feet all day, and I think a lot of people in that industry accepted it as normal. Then the pandemic happened, and they broke away.”
“’My feet don’t hurt, I’m not tired because I wasn’t working until 2 a.m. and drinking coffee at 10 p.m. I don’t feel like doing that anymore,’” Hodson said, putting himself in the shoes of workers who have left the industry behind.
Servers are easier to come by, and training them is easier too. The real challenge is finding skilled bartenders, cooks or people “that want to do the grunt work,” as Hawkins put it.
In order to entice workers to return to that work, many restaurants have had to offer higher wages.
“Nobody pays minimum wage anymore. You can’t get anybody in the door at minimum wage,” LaPanta said.
Hawkins and Hodson both mentioned that recruiting dishwashers is a real struggle, even though the work pays much better now than in the past.
“The dish pit is a notoriously minimum wage job, and right now in our dish pit we’re paying $17 per hour. It used to be $7 per hour, and it was the worst job in whole place,” Hodson said.
Whether it be dishwashers or cooks, increasing pay is how Hodson has been able to find “good, reliable people.”
As of 2023, the minimum wage in Virginia is $12 per hour, significantly more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
The increase, which passed the legislature during Ralph Northam’s governorship, is among the reasons Virginia sprung up Oxfam America’s list of best states to work.
In 2018 and 2019, the confederation of charitable organizations ranked Virginia dead last in its annual index. But it’s since jumped to the middle of the pack, which the 2023 report was sure to note.
“This improvement reflects hugely productive legislative sessions in the state, where the minimum wage increased, a domestic workers bill of rights passed, protections against sexual harassment increased, and the state expanded accommodations for pregnant workers,” the report reads.
Kaitlyn Henderson, a senior research advisor at Oxfam America, painted the minimum wage increase as a good thing.
“There’s a really strong connection between states that support low wage workers and states that have lower instances of poverty, infant mortality and food insecurity,” she told The Daily Progress
For many restaurants, the new minimum wage has significantly increased their labor costs.
“Oh god, yes,” Hartwell said when asked if Whiskey Jar has boosted starting salaries.
“We bumped up pay probably 60%. We bumped our daytime bartender 100%. We’re paying 15% more in the kitchen, just to start,” he said.
While that’s good news for people looking to enter the industry, it can be tough on the actual restaurants’ financials.
“A restaurant is one of most dangerous businesses to ever open,” Hodson said, noting that many do not survive more than one year. “Restaurants have always operated on a razor’s edge. When we start getting to a place where labor costs are moving the way they’re moving, it gets harder.”
One way to counter the higher labor cost is to increase sales. But that’s much easier said than done.
Years into a staffing shortage, LaPanta chose to redesign his kitchen in an effort to make it more efficient.
“It’s not something we wanted to spend money on, but we figured we had to,” he said.
Similarly, Whiskey Jar has transitioned to a “mean and lean” approach.
“We’ve learned how to function with less employees. We just know we’re going to have to work harder,” Hartwell said.
Another way to balance the higher costs? Charge more for food.
“We’ve had to raise prices, which guests get mad about, but we have no other choice,” Hartwell said. “They don’t understand what’s happening to us. We have to start someone with no experience at $18 or $19 an hour just to get them in the door.”
Many other restaurants are doing the same.
“It used to be that buying a sandwich for $12 to $16 was insane, and now it’s kind of common place,” Hodson said. “We’re reaching the upper end of what people are looking to pay for food.”