2021 | Business

Restaurateurs struggle to hire back workers as Montgomery County nears full reopening

Some restaurant owners think pandemic made stressful industry less desirable

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All Set Restaurant & Bar in Silver Spring.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Meltzer

As Montgomery County prepares to allow dining rooms in restaurants to open at full capacity for the first time in more than a year, restaurateurs are struggling to hire back workers. Some think the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated problems in a profession that was already stressful.

The county is set to lift most restrictions at 6 a.m. on May 28 — two weeks after 50% of residents received their full dosage of the COVID-19 vaccine. At that point, the county will be following the state’s guidance, which means restaurants can open fully due to Gov. Larry Hogan lifting all dining restrictions on May 15.

Jennifer Meltzer, the managing partner of All Set Restaurant & Bar in Silver Spring, said in an interview on Tuesday that her business is hiring and training as many people as possible.

Before the pandemic, All Set had 25 front-of-house workers that included bartenders, servers and front desk workers, she said. Managers are not included in that count.

Meltzer said just four of those 25 employees have continued working there.

“Some of our team members moved away. They moved back to live with their parents. A number of them have gone on to grad school or have found jobs in other industries” she said.

Before the pandemic, Meltzer had 12 to 14 servers, which included both full- and part-time. Now, she has six servers, including both full- and part-time, she said.

Fewer workers have meant that All Set has been closed Mondays and Tuesdays, and when the restaurant is open, servers must take on more responsibility. Normally, one server might handle a five-table section of the restaurant, but now they might handle 10 to 15 tables at once, Meltzer said.

Meltzer said customers have been understanding about the challenges.

“We want to be open and we want to be back to 100% capacity, and I want to be able to fill the restaurant. But I want to offer the same level of service. And it’s very difficult when they have two or three times the … tables I would typically give one person,” she said.

Roberto Pietrobono, who, with his brother, Riccardo, owns Olazzo, Gringos & Mariachis and Alatri Bros., said in an interview on Monday that some of his employees who were out of work during the pandemic haven’t come back because they were part-time students and have since graduated.

But he also thinks that those receiving unemployment benefits are among those not coming back.

“You’re waiting for seasonal employees that don’t have that unemployment check that they can live off of, because they don’t have that option. So, we’re kind of waiting for them to come back and waiting for other applicants to come in,” he said.

Pietrobono said that of his restaurants, the Potomac Gringos location is the one most in need of employees due to the larger dining area. He worries about having fewer workers during holiday periods.

“Obviously, with Memorial Day, everyone wants to take off, so you don’t have the same [employee] pool where you can sub in and sub out,” he said.

Pietrobono said hiring front-of-house workers at his restaurants is his biggest challenge.

“Because of the increased seating, indoor and outdoor, every place is gonna need more employees. So, I personally expect it not to get better any time soon, just because there is a bigger need from the restaurants.”

At Tommy Joe’s in Bethesda, all but seven of the 30 employees were furloughed at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, manager Terry Cullen said on Tuesday.

But the majority returned in June 2020, when the county partially reopened restaurants, he said.

“Everybody’s been working one or two days extra a week. We’ve been able to cover it,” he said.

Cullen said some workers who didn’t return lived with their parents or grandparents, and didn’t want to risk exposing them to COVID-19.

At Duck Duck Goose in Bethesda, owner Ashish Alfred decided to have the restaurant open five days a week. Realizing that the pandemic has given people the opportunity to be at home with their families and focus on their own well being was a factor, he said.

“It was in that spirit that we said, ‘Listen, until we are in a position to make sure everybody has a solid two days off a week, we’re gonna only be open five days a week,’” he said.

Alfred said he is at 60% to 70% of the staffing at Duck Duck Goose Bethesda as before the pandemic. But the key, he said, has been listening to the needs of his employees, which is what prompted him to close the restaurant two days a week.

“If I’m being honest, I just went into the restaurant and everybody seemed tired. We were definitely short-staffed. I didn’t feel good about it,” he said.

Alfred said he isn’t sure how many other employees will return.

“I think that there’s a lot of people who left the restaurant industry and found other jobs. There’s a lot of people who don’t want to come back to the restaurant industry,” he said.

Montgomery County has closed restaurants entirely for indoor dining twice during the pandemic. Alfred said keeping restaurants closed for an extended period created problems with staffing.

“We made it really hard, not only for restaurants to survive, but we made it really hard for restaurant workers to survive. I can’t blame them for maybe wanting to go work in other municipalities,” he said.

Alfred said some people working in the hospitality industry before the pandemic might not want to return to 14- or 16-hour shifts “in an environment that they might have felt underappreciated in.” Employers, he said, need to offer a better work-life balance in the industry.

“Bethesda’s a great community of people and a great community of diners, and we just ask for their continued patience while we figure this out,” he said.

Meltzer said the demanding nature of working in a restaurant has caused her to think about best practices for training and treating workers. She added that the pandemic has forced people to re-evaluate some of the priorities in their life.

“As a person who’s worked in restaurants for more than 20 years, we don’t have holidays off. We don’t get to see our family. I don’t have friends any more who work 9 to 5,” she said. “So, I think spending time with your family and also losing so many loved ones and watching people go through this, it was like, ‘Do I really want to work in a restaurant with guests that maybe aren’t appreciative of our hard work and labor?’ I think it pushed a lot of people out of this market.”

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com