MIAMI – All Day, a downtown coffee shop and restaurant, started the year on a high note. January was its busiest month since the start of the pandemic. "It was like turning on a light switch," said Camila Ramos, an owner.
Business was so good, it pushed All Day's staff to a near-breaking point, Ramos said. When she had trouble hiring reinforcements to help with the increased traffic, she was forced to make a counterintuitive decision: She closed All Day for the month of February.
"I couldn't find people to hire," she said recently outside her cafe, which reopened on March 1. "I just wanted some time to reset the operations."
Ramos discovered early what the owners of full-service restaurants nationwide are now experiencing: a persistent worker shortage in the face of an upswing in business, as mild weather for outdoor dining spreads across the country, along with the reduced COVID restrictions that came early to South Florida and are now being felt throughout the U.S.
A staffing shortage seems counterintuitive in a business that has been devastated by the pandemic, with mass layoffs and an alarming number of permanent closings. It comes just as the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion grant program for struggling small restaurants, bars and restaurant groups, is gearing up to take applications, and as diners who have eaten at home for a year feel increasingly liberated by vaccines.
Restaurant employment has risen each month this year, according to the National Restaurant Association, but staffing levels at full-service restaurants in February were still 20% — or 1.1 million jobs — lower than a year ago.
Owners and chefs at full-service restaurants said the main reason staffing remains stubbornly low is that there are simply many more job openings than available workers.
Hugh Acheson, a chef with restaurants in Atlanta and Athens, Ga., is in charge of food and beverage at the new Hotel Effie Sandestin, in Miramar Beach, Fla. Around the time it opened in February, he said, one online job site advertised more than 300 line-cook openings in the same area. "And those listings had been up for, like, two months," he said.
Madison McClaren, All Day's new executive chef, joked that she considered posting on the dating site Tinder: "Responsible cook, seeking same."
But intense competition for workers is only one reason for the worker shortage. Restaurateurs said many former employees are choosing not to re-enter the workforce at a time when they can make nearly as much or more by collecting unemployment benefits.
"You have some cases where it's more profitable to not work than to work, and you can't really fault people for wanting to hold on to that as long as possible," Fox said.
Others have left the restaurant business for better-paying jobs in other fields, further shrinking the pool of possible applicants. Greg Wright, 34, said he decided not to return to his job as a sous-chef at Marlow & Sons, in Brooklyn, soon after the shutdown in March last year. He has since moved to the Bay Area and started training to become a computer programmer.
"To me, it was, 'Do I just sit here on my hands and hope that I have a job in the next two years, three years, five years?' " Wright said. "The answer was, 'Absolutely not.' " Liz Murray, director of human resources and communications for the company that owns Marlow & Sons, said employees have left the company for a variety of reasons. Some moved from New York to their hometowns — and stayed, after finding jobs in restaurants there. A spokeswoman for Crafted Hospitality, which operates chef Tom Colicchio's restaurants, said that 80 to 85% of its kitchen staff has moved out of New York City.
Erick Williams, executive chef and owner of Virtue in Chicago, said his staff of 22 employees is about half the size it was before the pandemic. "People aren't even showing up for interviews these days," he said.