Monica Nenni and her business partner, Mel Kutzera probably couldn’t have had worse timing.
After opening West Central Wine in downtown Middletown in 2016, the two businesswomen opened Bandanas Italian Eatery four years later on Central Avenue in the location formerly occupied by Stefano’s.
Nenni, Middletown’s vice mayor, said the restaurant opened “in the direct wake of shutdowns” from the global COVID-19 pandemic.
After opening Bandanas, they increased staffing from four employees to 15 and quickly found themselves in need of “good people” in a time when many restaurant workers were either choosing to stay at home and continue receiving unemployment benefits or had found alternative job opportunities in different fields as a result of the stress and demands of the food and beverage industry.
So they sought the assistance from family and friends to fill many of the open positions in the new restaurant endeavor.
The restaurant industry is primarily comprised of part-time employees, Nenni said. Most staff members are still in school, have other part-time jobs or are raising young families, and this can result in “unpredictable staffing issues,” she said.
Nenni and Kutzera certainly aren’t alone.
Job growth in the restaurant industry slowed during the first quarter of 2022, according to preliminary data from Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although March represented the 15th consecutive month of restaurant job growth, it was also the smallest gain during that period. Overall, eating and drinking establishments remain 820,000 — or 6.6% — below their pre-pandemic staffing levels, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Those is the hospitality business have starved for employees ever since the outset of COVID-19 in March 2020. After Gov. Mike DeWine closed restaurants and bars due to the fear of spreading the coronavirus, some employees left the profession and never returned. Others collected their government assistance checks and either entered a new profession or stayed home.
That caused a trickle down effect that’s still being felt two years later. In hopes of attracting employees, restaurants, especially those in the fast-food industry, have increased their wages and benefits. Cane’s, for instance, says employees start at $15 an hour, nearly twice minimum wage, while other restaurants are offering sign-on bonuses, 401K benefits and college tuition assistance.
Every restaurant, it seems, is hiring.
So where are the high school and college students, those who typically start their careers in the food industry?
“We’ve asked that question about 1,000 times over the last couple of years, and nobody’s been able to give a concrete answer,” said Tyler McCleary, general manager at Tano Bistro in Hamilton and a founding member of the Hamilton Amusement and Hospitality Association. “The best guess that I’ve had, along with people that I’ve spoken with, is that the hospitality industry is challenging. It’s always been a challenging industry. Everybody’s paying more money right now. That’s just what you have to do. The entire workforce is making more, so that’s step one. But that’s not the whole thing because we know, especially younger people, aren’t just looking for higher wages. So we have to offer more.”
Donnie Osborne, owner of The Jug, a hamburger landmark in Middletown, said he treats his staff very well, so most of the employees return every year. For him, the hardest time to staff is at the end of summer when school starts.
Sometimes, he said, he depends on his wife and their three sons to fill the work schedule.
Osborne said after months of having difficulty getting applicants to show up for interviews, the trend has reversed. Applicants are following through.
“The free money is gone,” he said. “People are coming back.”
Jim Manley, marketing director at Fricker’s, which has numerous locations throughout the region, said many of his employees who left during the pandemic have returned. That’s because at Fricker’s, Manley said, there are two goals: take care of the customers and the employers.
“If we do,” he said, “it all works out.”
Still, he said, having a full staff can be challenging.
“Never a day goes by, like clockwork, a waitress calls off and you have to make sure that job gets done,” he said. “That happens every single day in our stores.”
Jonathan Jones, a junior at Fairfield High School, wants to get into information technology or web design in college, and works part-time The Web Extreme Entertainment Center in West Chester Twp. Though he doesn’t work in the hospitality industry, he believes young people aren’t working at restaurants in recent years because of the customers.
“I really don’t have any answers to that, but I’d say probably with customers nowadays, and them being like Karens and stuff like that,” he said.
Conner Hamrick, 20, a 2020 Madison High School, attended Northern Kentucky University for one, and recently bought a house in Middletown. He works full-time in customer service at Start Skydiving in Middletown.
He understands why some of his working friends have avoided the restaurant industry. He said while it’s hard working in restaurants, employees sometimes are disrespected by “not friendly” customers.
“Younger people want to be respected day to day,” he said. “That doesn’t always happen in those fields.”
Karley Murphy, a senior at Fairfield High School, said she plans to attend a beauty school to be a hairdresser. Though she used to work at restaurants, she said she quit because “we were very understaffed.” Staffing issues are a common complaint with other restaurants, a problem she’s heard echoed by friends and classmates. Murphy also stopped because of scheduling.
She also said the understaffing is a common complaint she’s heard about at other restaurants being a problem. While some restaurants are offering perks like college tuition assistance, sign-on bonuses, she said she would “possibly” reconsider working for a restaurant in the future.