Restaurants Struggle to Staff Up as Diners Are Anxious to Get Out

A sign in the window at Tribal All Day Cafe in the Bishop Arts District.
A sign in the window at Tribal All Day Cafe in the Bishop Arts District. Lauren Drewes Daniels
A year since the pandemic began, local restaurants and bars are hustling to get back into prizefighting shape. The past few weekends, some reported business has been at levels not seen since before times. Parklets in the Bishop Arts District are packed, groups meander through the AT&T Discovery District and lines spill outside restaurants around Victory Plaza. Last Saturday night, the sidewalks in Deep Ellum were a swift current of people.

While we're all anxious to get back to normal, the crowds are also unnerving. The obvious reason being that we are still in a pandemic. The New York Times reported Tuesday that only 13% of Texans are fully vaccinated and 25% have had at least one dose.

For many restaurant and bar owners, business also is complicated by a tight labor market.

Joe Monastero is the chief strategy and operations officer for the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA). He says hiring good help was a problem even before COVID-19 shuttered restaurants a year ago.

“We knew that prior to the pandemic, recruitment of employees was the number one issue that kept restaurant owners awake at night,” Monastero says. “In 2019, 43% of restaurants surveyed listed staffing as their number one problem. When we did the survey in 2020, obviously the pandemic took over the top spot, but recruitment was still number two.”

Proof of that persistent need was a 2017 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that projected the food services and bar industries would add more than a million jobs over the next 10 years, more than any other industry.

The pandemic only fanned the flames of restaurant owners’ sleepless nights by pulling people out of the foodservice industry. Nikky Phinyawatana, owner of Asian Mint, which has four locations across North Texas, closed to dine-in service when the pandemic hit, meaning she lost staff.

“It is a bit of a challenge to find new hires at the moment as many service industry workers are working for third-party delivery companies,” Phinyawatana explains. “Even some of our past employees have moved to these companies.”

click to enlarge Jaxon Beer Garden was packed this past weekend. - LAUREN DREWES DANIELS
Jaxon Beer Garden was packed this past weekend.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
Since Gov. Greg Abbott lifted all capacity restrictions at restaurants earlier in March, Monastero says the crunch is on. “Many places can’t get to 100% capacity because they don’t have the workforce to support it,” he says.

Monastero says at the height of the pandemic, 600,000 of the 1.3 million employees in the state's restaurant industry were out of work.

“Now there are 160,000 former employees still on the sidelines, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re out of work,” Monastero says.

Recently, Connie Cheng, owner of the Asian Cajun restaurant Krio in the Bishop Arts District, which opened last summer, says business has been great, but "it's been very tough hiring for all positions.

“I know all of my fellow hospitality friends are in the same boat. Understaffed, but pushing through. Everyone needs more hands on deck," Cheng says.

Local Favorite Restaurant Group owns several restaurant chains, including Twisted Root (Deep Ellum and Carrollton), El Fenix, Village Burger Bar, Snuffer's and Meso Maya. In the past 25 days, the company has posted 38 different jobs on for 12 different restaurants.

Monastero is working with the Texas Workforce Commission to help restaurants and employees by trying to alleviate fees for food handler licenses and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's required license. The TRA is also working on communication campaigns to attract new workers, like college students and empty-nesters, saying "it's an industry that has a place for everyone."

The Free Man in Deep Ellum, which serves Cajun dishes, hosts live music and has an outdoor seating area, hasn't had a hard time hiring people. “People are still in need of work, if anything the difficulty has been making sure that we hire the right person for the job,” says general manager Gino Iglehart.

As restaurants ramp up to meet a post-pandemic appetite for dining out, we all may be in for some growing pains.

“The service industry is under a significant microscope right now, and ensuring we’re all ready for the influx of patrons and maintain[ing] a sense of safety is the order of business,” Iglehart says. “Patrons being patient is great but we have to be prepared regardless of how patient or impatient customers may be.”
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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.