Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Help wanted: East Village restaurants look for staff, find few options

 Article and photos by Stacie Joy

When Sidney’s Five was preparing to open this spring on First Avenue, the owners of the café placed ads for waitstaff and kitchen help on Craigslist. 

The job search yielded just one reply for the back-of-house positions as opposed to the hundreds of responses the hospitality veterans may have received pre-pandemic. Meanwhile, only one person showed up to interview for a front-of-house slot. 

As East Village bars and restaurants move on from pandemic-era closures and dining-room restrictions, owners continue to face a dearth of available employees — yet another challenge in a tumultuous 15-month-plus period that saw sales plunge before the more recent uptick in business. However, some restaurateurs are having trouble meeting the demands with the lack of workers.

Even in casual conversations with owners and managers, I have been hearing “do you know anyone who may be interested in working?” for weeks now.
A search on Craigslist finds thousands of requests for front-of-house and kitchen staff in the city, and you can’t walk more than a block or two without spotting handmade signs in restaurant windows. (And this is not a local challenge. As The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, restaurant and bar employment remains down by 1.5 million nationwide since the pandemic began.)

Several East Village hospitality business owners and hiring managers talked with me about their recent troubles finding staff, why they think there’s a problem, and their outlook on the future.

Multitasking to make do

At Sidney’s Five, the four partners — Kai Woo, Walker Chambliss, Edie Ugot and David Lowenstein — find themselves multitasking. Due to the staffing shortage, they are responsible for every job: washing dishes, bussing and cleaning tables, cooking meals — even snaking gutters.
The café is offering a scaled-back menu until they can fully staff the kitchen. The people they might usually hire, actors and performers earning extra money as waitstaff, left town when theater venues shut down, the owners said. Some other longtime bartenders and cooks opted for different careers during the hospitality downturn of 2020.

“Much of the industry staffing left New York during the pandemic, and it will take time for everyone to return,” Lowenstein said. “In addition, there may be another group who are still here but are afraid to return to work because they live with relatives who are vulnerable to COVID. This group may be waiting until there is a higher vaccination rate in the city.”

“And there is another group who can collect sufficient unemployment benefits until September ... so returning to work doesn't make financial sense," he continued. "Finally, workers who remained in their roles and are likely happy with their workplace and compensation because of how desperate employers are to staff up.”

Lowenstein wonders if some kind of government cash bonus or tax benefit would encourage people to return to work.

“I don’t support removing/reducing the unemployment benefits early, the way many governors are doing across the country,” he said. “I would support some positive encouragement, though. It might also help the situation if state or local government-subsidized wages for new hires to offer a competitive rate. As a new restaurant, it is more difficult for us to offer $25/hour to a line cook when we aren’t even taking wages ourselves yet.”

At Van Da, chef-owner Yen Ngo talked to me after a long night of cooking and running her well-regarded Vietnamese restaurant on Fourth Street. 

Ngo’s executive chef is pregnant, and she and her partner (who also worked as a Van Da chef) have left to stay with family. 

Since Ngo cannot find someone who specializes in Vietnamese cooking, she’s behind the burners whenever the space is open — five nights per week.
Ngo cited several reasons for the shortage of restaurant employees. 

“When the pandemic hit, most restaurant workers were laid off, some moved out of the city. Some have had the time to reflect at home and want a career change,” she said. 

At Van Da, 20 percent of the staff went back to school, while another 30 percent moved out of the city. 

“Restaurant work is hard and often unappreciated. It is easier to find front of the house now since the jobs are easier, and the pay is better than being cooks or preps,” Ngo said. “I wish all workers would get paid according to their skills rather than [relying on] tips. It’s complicated. Most people do not understand how broken the system is if they don't run or own restaurants.”

Ngo and other restaurant owners have experienced other shortages, including supplies, as well as higher costs. 

“Finding good products [is difficult]. There are shortages of good beef and pork, not to mention the huge increase in cost,” Ngo said. “Our beef and pork prices more than doubled.” 

Julio Peña, an owner of the Italian wine bar and restaurant Il Posto Accanto on Second Street, said they have always relied on word-of-mouth for waitstaff. For kitchen crews and bussers, they have used employment agencies. Neither source is turning up many candidates these days.

Between unemployment benefits and career changes (he said that many back-of-the-house workers are now in construction), Peña is left with few options. 

“There’s not much you can do…trim your hours of operation, ask customers to be patient, serve fewer people, and hope it works out,” he said.

Receiving fewer applicants

Ike Escava operates three outposts of The Bean in the neighborhood. At the coffee shop’s Third Avenue location, Escava talked about his experiences in barista pandemic staffing.
“It’s been a [hiring] challenge, although better lately. It was tough to find people who want to work. We have signs on the doors of all of our restaurants, advertisements on Indeed.com, and people can apply on our website,” Escava said. “We are getting fewer applicants…people don’t want to work if they are getting, say, $700 a week from the government not to work.”

In his opinion, the government should offer the $300/week PUA Cares Act to everyone, including those who have re-entered the workforce. 

“It would be an incentive to return to the workplace, and people would still get their extra $300 weekly,” he said.

A hiring manager at an upscale health-conscious restaurant, who wasn't authorized to speak on the record, discussed his difficulties finding staff.

“The most common statement I’ve heard over the past few months is ‘it’s because people are still receiving unemployment benefits.’ I do feel this is a factor. It is also a simplification of reality,” the hiring manager said. “The reality is that these industries, as rewarding as they can be, are not easy places to work. Folks who have spent their careers serving others have often felt underappreciated. What this past year has offered was a glimpse into what it would be like to pursue other desires and skills while maintaining a healthier work/life balance.” 

Being based in NYC, the hiring manager said we had the unique experience of the mass migration out of the city. 

“This is something we are seeing that’s changing,” he said. “It seems like every week there are more and more people moving back or to the city for the first time.”

And as for finding and hiring candidates, “We have started casting a much larger net. The first thing we did was to diversify where we are looking for candidates. I believe we have job postings on four or five sites currently. We have also adjusted experience requirements, job history, etc., which is tricky because we also want to maintain our level of service and experience.”

Being kind and understanding

At the Korean-American restaurant Nowon on Sixth Street, chef Jae Lee expounded on the difficulties in hiring.

“It’s a very touchy subject to point out the reason why but let's speak about what the operators noticed. When unemployment benefits were to end last year, we saw an uptick on many back-of-house and front-of-house professionals applying for positions,” Lee said. “When the unemployment benefits continued, the applicants were no longer there. Every operator says the same thing; they are short-staffed, and it feels almost impossible to hire anyone.”

Regarding candidates, “We have posted ads on culinary agents and have boosted posts, which honestly did nothing to bring in more applicants. We also tried to hire through word-of-mouth, which didn’t work either.”

“We were able to hire two new front-of-house support staff who are college students,” he continued. “We are hiring green candidates who we can mold rather than hiring experienced professionals who don’t need much training.”

Lee closed our conversation with a sentiment I’ve heard from almost everyone interviewed for this story.

“Please be kind and understanding while restaurants and bars are trying their absolute best to make it work,” he said. “Please be nice to the staff who chose to come into work to serve and cook for you. We know we have work to do, and we are diligently working hard to get there.” 


Anonymous said...

excellent reporting!! thank you!

Anonymous said...

Despite our nightlife mayor touting what an economic engine alcohol serving establishments are, these are not good jobs. You work your ass off for low pay, rarely have health insurance, paid time off that is not mandated by law or other benefits such as a 401(k).

Neighbor said...

I wonder how many of these places have adjusted wages in response to these challenges.

noble neolani said...

I would not put the blame on unemployment benefits for the scarcity of applicants for these jobs. Minimum wage is completely useless if you live in this city and I suspect those which held these "lowest legally paid wages" are aiming higher or have completely moved on.

Anonymous said...

If forgot to mention the additional group

Those people who were championed as essential workers and heroes but saw no increase in salary They realize that working for peanuts isn't worth your life. They are heroes but not suckers.

creature said...

I waited tables for over ten years. These jobs are thankless, offer no security, and are prone to abuse (why chefs, managers, and bosses in this field can get away with berating their staff is beyond me). If given a choice, I would've bailed too (which I eventually did).

Anonymous said...

I would be truly interested in knowing how those food establishments in the European Union are handling this situation. They have an entirely different approach to employment in the hospitality industry than we here in the United States. Their methods might be worth adapting and adopting for our workers because, lets face it, cooking and waiting on people is a tough profession.

Anonymous said...

This article offers an interesting perspective. But in terms of the effects of unemployment benefits on workers returning to their jobs, I would say that the food service industry is not typical of the job market in general. Many of these people rely on tips. Business is nowhere near what it was pre Covid in most places. These are hard, thankless jobs, which are underpaid. With the city coming back, there are better options for these former employees. My advice to these business owners, raise the salary and benefits and watch how many more qualified applicants you will get for these positions.

Anonymous said...

I was speaking with a couple of waiters at one of my favorite spots yesterday and they were talking about all the turnover at their restaurant. They are also looking to get out. Because of the outdoor dining shed they are doing way more work and not getting any extra pay while the restaurant owners are raking it in now from all the extra seating. It's so unfair how the wait staff stuck with these restaurants through the pandemic and waited it out only to be worked to the bone for zero extra money and no benefits as usual.

Pennys herb co said...

All I can say folks❤️❤️
Hourly wage n benefits
Good people⚡️⚡️⚡️⚡️

Pennys herb co said...

My 2 cents
Hourly pay n great benifits
Good people!
(Long time east village family❤️

Anonymous said...

If you can afford to eat at a restaurant please be generous with tips. My waiter friends are struggling and people aren't tipping well at a lot of places in the neighborhood. Buy one less cocktail and give the money directly to the waiter.

Beacon, NY said...

Most likely with all the business regulations implemented by New York State that lead to high fees and taxes for the restaurants they are less likely to get generous with their kitchen and wait staff. Adding to the huge turnover rate of eating establishments in the city, it may be hard to project a long term trajectory of salaries for restaurant employees for many of them.

Anonymous said...

The propensity for commenters on this blog to blindly think owners are always raking it in and holding back on paying higher salaries just so they can line their own pockets is amazing. Obviously never business owners. While it might be true for a handful, most are struggling just as much. There are no easy answers.

Anonymous said...

Being paid by tips is a tough way to make a living because you don't know how much you are going to make on a given night. It all depends on the number of people you are serving and whether those people are good tippers. So even if you come to work prepared, do a great job, your pay is based on the whims of the diners and whether the diners come at all.

Anonymous said...

I mostly don't eat out unless I can tip well which translates to I never eat out at all.😪

Anonymous said...

Great story. I would love to see a follow up where you interview the wait staff and kitchen workers in the neighborhood to get their perspective.

LPIFLY said...

Look when you shut down and industry and give workers peanuts in unemployment.. which is peanuts vs what most waitstaff make for Manhattan standards.... they can afford rent or living in NYC. I don't know anyone comfortably able to live on unemployment with no work like they used to. Simply put we took such a blow, lost soany, its not just easy to go 100%. Unemployment benefits aren't the problem at all, it's just part of the long term damage this pandemic had on nyc since the beginning.

Anonymous said...

FYI anyone sayong resturaunt workers need to do away with tips and pay a salary... go see how that worked out for Danny Myers.... spoiler it didn't and he lost staff

Pennys herb co said...

Certain places I know stayed open n kept there staff:

Anonymous said...

As someone who spent fifteen years in the trenches of the NYC restaurant industry, as a waiter, bartender, and assistant manager in high end, celebrity driven, and family run establishments, I can unequivocally say one of the main reasons people aren't clamoring to return is the treatment of staff overall and the lack of consistency in pay. Customers can be mean and demanding and co workers are moody in close quarters. While there are a lot of caring and decent employers in the city, there are also many conniving, physically and emotionally abusive bosses who are horrible to work for, especially when you are working in toxic environments during six day work weeks. The pandemic was a reckoning for all of us. I left the industry in 2016 because it decimated my soul, literally, in spite of good money. I had to get out. I have friends who made more money on unemployment than working 70 hour weeks. I don't blame them for not wanting to go back. Something has to shift. Most people, including myself, work hard for their money, but how much and for how long? It becomes blood money at a certain point. And when you reach a certain age say past 40, working on your feet for twelve hours where your income is solely contingent on tips is really difficult. If you are very young and an aspiring actor/artist/student it is fine, but as you get older, it is very stressful, and people are realizing they can make more money for less stress and heartache with more respect. Just my two cents. The climate is changing hopefully for both sides. I wish everyone the best that was profiled on here.

Anonymous said...

it's not just the restaurant industry, it's every industry. Obviously, this has to do with nonsensical governmental policies. I know many people who would rather get consistent pay from not working, then have to show up and rely on tips

Giovanni said...

Why did it take a pandemic to expose the fact that our society is full of abusive bosses and entitled customers who seem to revel in making the lives of average worker miserable? The answer begins with our own friends and family.

I had dinner with a cousin the other night who was complaining about how our waitress, who was one of the nicest waitresses I’ve ever had, was being too inattentive. She wanted to screw the waitress on the tip. I had to explain to her that the restaurant we were in had twice as many tables now as it used to have due to the outdoor seating, and that restaurants are having a hard time finding enough waitstaff..My cousin grudgingly agreed to leave a decent tip.

The same thing goes for bad bosses. Unless someone is there to police their behavior they will continue to act badly. Entitlement, rudeness, and taking out problems on other people has now come back to bite the service industry, but this has been going on forever.Just because you’re paying someone money doesn’t mean you have the right to treat them like dirt.

Beacon, NY said...

@ Giovanni

A society that focuses only on maximizing the bottom line can't be good for human relations.

The principle of capitalism isn't supposed to be a warm and lovable concept.

Anonymous said...

Why work when you can get endless benefits from the government?

Anonymous said...

note that it's the kitchen crew/non-tipped that is really short staffed. All those guys went to construction jobs. Also grueling work but much better pay. they won't go back to chopping veggies, sweating over a hot stove, and washing dishes anymore.

Anonymous said...

"Why work when you can get endless benefits from the government?"

The benefits do end. When you're making more money on unemployment than you do at your job, then why not take advantage of that benefit as long as possible? If you are making more money on unemployment than you were when you were employed, you were underpaid.

I was on unemployment for an extended time and it is no vacation. The benefits were not enough to cover my rent and other bills, but it enabled me to have more time to look for a job. That's what safety nets are for.

Anonymous said...

I am friends with the long-time owner of several popular restaurants, who reported the same no response to job postings. She said 90% of those that do respond say they will only work off the books because they will not give up the government benefits. For the first time since the 1980s, she is paying staff in cash.

Anonymous said...

Warehouses in "Real America" can't find workers. AmLaw 100 Law Firms are throwing money hand over fist at associates and retention is still an issue. Investment bankers are leaving Banks by the dozen.

This goes deeper than a $700 a week unemployment benefit (that runs out in a couple of months). There is going to be fundamental shift in the relationship between employers and employees. And for how much criticism Millennials get, they are driving this dynamic. And good for them.

XTC said...

My guess is that when UI benefits run out 1st week of Sept we'll see more people come back to work. This is the first time the Gov has allowed gig workers and freelance people to get benefits. So if UI has been holding people back from seeking work we should see a big uptick of restaurant workers coming back end of Sept/ early Oct.

Anonymous said...

I've worked in the hospitality industry for over two decades now. I am in my mid 40's and I've pretty much seen it all. What I've found is that when the sales of alcohol become the driving factor in a businesses profits the customers become ruder and the owners more entitled. My patience in dealing with rude customers is not what it was when I was in my mid twenties, and the same can be said for dealing with owners/bosses. The hardest thing coming back to work last year was realizing after a 2 week grace period where customers were pleasant because, well hell they hadn't eaten or drunk out with friends since mid March, became ruder than they'd been before; for enforcing the wearing of masks, for asking them to repeat orders because its hard to hear and difficult to read a person ordering wearing a mask, many just forgot that tipping was still required...the list goes on. Here's a good one tho and the reason I quit. I noticed that my pay was significantly less than what it should have been the week after a very busy night of tips. This had happened before, when I had first started working at this particular spot 18 months previous. It was a new restaurant/bar, just opened and I was opening staff. At the time I noticed my pay was short, I mentioned it to the owner who did payroll. She realized her mistake, apologized and fixed my check. Ok, its a new business, some kinks to smooth out. Fast forward to post pandemic re-opening, place is getting busier and busier, customers ruder, and I notice my pay is low again (I check and its 30% under this time) so as before I mention it to the same owner, adding that "I as a worker shouldn't have to check I'm being paid correctly, so why is this happening again?") To my surprise the owner responded by completely avoided any responsibility, saying that I should indeed be checking my pay every week to be sure that it is correct and that "sometimes humans make mistakes" No apology! I called up in anger and rage quit on the spot. After the call the owner leveled a bunch of accusations against me saying that I had called them names and that no one had every spoken to them like that before. For the record I never called them any names, just cursed a lot and basically said "Learn how to be a better boss and, Fuck your fucking job!"

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous at 6:22 p.m.: I am so sorry you were treated that way by the owners. Thank you for telling the truth. The owners and chefs get so much press. No one wants to believe they don't treat their wait staff well.

Anonymous said...

Everyone here always says there are too many bars and clubs. If they cant get staff shut them down and have it become something else. What's the problem?

Anonymous said...

The proverbial lid is being lifted on the hospitality industry and a lot of it isn't pretty. My boyfriend used to wait tables here at a well known place in the east village and he has some stories that made me ill. The neglect, abuse, mistreatment, and overall bullshit from the front and back of house staff have to put up with is overwhelming. His paychecks would always be voided due to taxes and fees. So, you can imagine every dollar was hard earned. Yet, his bosses always wanted more and treated him like dirt in his thankless role as head waiter. He worked on my birthdays, his birthday, holidays, our anniversary, snowstorms, you name it, he was a champ. He was given no insurance or sick days or personal days. Six weeks before the pandemic, he got food poisoning and called in. They told him he had to come in because there was no one to cover his shift and that it was responsibility. Meanwhile, he is on the bathroom floor, with a blanket and pillow, groveling and sweating, and looking white as a ghost. I call his boss and tell him there is no way he will come in. That he might have to go to the ER. And his boss has the audacity to ask could he come by and work after. I told him to fuck off and hung up. My BF never returned. And this restaurant ended up closing due to no business due to COVID. Restaurants everywhere, especially in NYC need some self-reflection. You cannot run your staff into the ground, treat them like shit, and expect them to stay when a crisis happens if you don't take care of them. After my BF got better, he was able to collect UE and regroup and enter into a new industry.