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INTERACTIVE: As Richmond restaurant surge hits historic year, staffing remains an issue

Significantly more food establishments opened in the greater Richmond area this year than any other year this decade, according to the Virginia Department of Health, which grants health permits for businesses to operate. As the restaurant market grows, so does competition among food establishments — not only for customers, but for quality employees. 

Capital News Service

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By Mario Sequeira Quesada

Significantly more food establishments opened in the greater Richmond area this year than any other year this decade, according to the Virginia Department of Health, which grants health permits for businesses to operate. As the restaurant market grows, so does competition among food establishments — not only for customers, but for quality employees.

Since 2010, 62 food businesses have opened each year on average; this includes fast food, caterers, food trucks, full service restaurants and other small food service establishments such as coffee shops or daycare facility kitchens. But as of Dec. 4, the VDH had issued 133 health permits — more than double the average — for food-related businesses to begin operating this year. Many restaurant owners are aware of the increase, and not only has it challenged them to maintain high standards over the food they serve, it also raises the competition for hiring personnel.

Employment of food preparation and serving personnel in Richmond increased 15% from 2010 to 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, restaurants and food establishments in Richmond employed nearly 54,000 people to work in the kitchen, wait tables, bartend or host — and they’re still hiring.

“There just aren’t enough people to work in the service industry,” said Jeff Allums, owner of Baja Bean Co., which closed a location in Richmond in October and operates another in Staunton. “There’s still a lot of great professionals around and quality of food is not necessarily the issue as much as when you talk service and things like that.”

Allums attributes this issue to a series of cultural and technological developments that have impacted the restaurant industry. He also recognizes that market growth offers more opportunities for employment, therefore restaurants are competing for the same personnel, and in some cases, several establishments have to share employees.

“There are a lot of places where they’ll have a bartender come in for one shift a week and then he’ll go to another bar for another day of the week,” he said. Allums said some restaurants have to use platforms like Snagajob, which allow owners to hire staff for a certain amount of time on a specific date, without knowing the person and having to pay a higher rate. “Even though services are changing the way people work, there’s no loyalty as a 40-hour work week.”

At the same time, Allums said food delivery apps like Uber Eats and Doordash attract some members of the population restaurants seek to hire, like high school and college students. The flexibility of working on their own time and for as long as they want are opportunities that the restaurant industry cannot always grant. So now, the competition for personnel is not only among local restaurants, but also among popular online services. Although food delivery may seem promising for a business, it can also negatively affect their operation and reputation and benefit fast-food establishments.

The typical restaurant does not do take-out well because the food doesn’t taste as good when it’s eaten 20 or more minutes after it’s ready, Allums said. “You order an enchilada platter for me or something, it’s not as good unless it’s less than two minutes away from the kitchen,” he said. “In 2018, I was doing about $600 – $700 a week in Uber sales, and that is when all of the sudden McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, started to do those Doordash things and it plummeted.”

Popular restaurant groups like RVA Hospitality, which owns four restaurants — Bar Solita, Max’s on Broad, Tarrant’s Cafe and Tarrant’s West — are not exempt from the insufficient labor force. Co-owner Liz Kincaid categorized finding high-quality staff as one of the most important issues that restaurants currently face, mainly because people are joining the workforce at an older age compared to years ago, reducing the total pool of potential employees.

“The fact is, you know, you let someone go, they’re going to walk across the street and get a job tomorrow,” Kincaid said. “The cards are in the employees’ hands, and I think in previous generations it may have been the other way, that big businesses or the business owner would have had an upper hand.”

Both Allums and Kincaid mentioned that teenagers and young adults are not seeking jobs in the restaurant industry as often as in the past. This situation is a reality around the country and is expected to become a larger trend, according to the National Restaurant Association’s Research and Knowledge Group. In a report released in November, the data shows that from 2008 to 2018 there was a decrease of 1 million employees ages 16 to 19. Last year, 5.9 million people in that range worked for food establishments, and the association expects that number to drop to 5.1 million by 2028. The working population of 20-to-24-year-olds is expected to drop participation in the industry by half a million during the same period.

Volume of employees is important, but the issue becomes more prominent when addressing a lack of quality workers. Relationship marketing expert and founder of the PRO Business Group Support in Richmond, Michael Short, also believes that finding quality staff is one of the top three challenges restaurants face in Richmond — along with marketing strategy and high competition.

Nobody wants to work as a server anymore, Short said. He said employees tend to feel discouraged by the uncertainty in scheduling — especially when they’re scheduled to work on traditionally slow nights — and not knowing how much money they could make each day.

“If you’re the server or the bartender scheduled for Monday or Tuesday night, you’re going to work making almost no money and it’s hard to keep employees excited and enthused about their job,” Short said. “As a server … you’re generally not paid a significant hourly wage and you really rely on the tips. And a lot of times, folks forget that and it’s hard to find people that they want to work.”

Another factor that affects the employees’ enthusiasm, especially early after entering the business, is the unrealistic expectations of the job.

Most new employees don’t realize how much hard work it is to serve in a restaurant, according to Jimmy Tsamouras, owner and chef of Dot’s Back Inn and Demi’s Mediterranean Kitchen. “They think it might be easy, and then they get into it and realize how grueling and how hard it is, and they get turned off by it,” he said.

Restaurant server and bartender Carlee Morse also said the job is harder than people expect, but time and experience have helped her become more efficient and perform better. She is one of the employees restaurants have to share. Morse, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, managed to have a full-time job combining her shifts at Metro Bar & Grill and Tang & Biscuit in order to pay for rent, utilities and groceries.

Although she enjoys her job, she admits that it can be overwhelming due to understaffing and high clientele. Morse said sometimes she waits tables for over 60 people at the same time by herself. She said in some cases new employees start working and a few weeks later they leave the restaurant.

Morse considered other options for work, like Uber Eats, but her interests are clear. “I personally like serving because you can make connections with people you meet on the job, which helps a lot later down the road,” she said.

When it comes to getting a job as a server, Morse believes it is not an easy road but said restaurants might be having issues because of their hiring strategies.

“I don’t think restaurants do a good job about letting people know they are hiring,” Morse said. “Both of my jobs, I got just from calling around, not from seeing an ad or anything like that. A lot of times you have to seek it out yourself, instead of like normal big companies where they will put ads out and say they are hiring.”

Richmond restaurants employed 16% of the total food preparing and serving personnel in 2018 in Virginia, according to the BLS. This labor group is the third biggest in Richmond, just behind office and administrative support, and sales-related occupations. The years 2012 and 2016 saw the biggest percentage increase in food preparation and serving employment, with 8% and 5% growth, respectively.

In a more general scope, over 15,500 food and beverage businesses operated in Virginia in 2018, according to a review of the National Restaurant Association. The total sales in the commonwealth exceeded $18 billion last year. The study estimates that the industry currently offers over 378,000 jobs including all food preparing and serving positions, managerial and administrative roles. This number is expected to increase another 10% in the state over the next decade.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Department of Public Utilities encourages reopening businesses to flush water before use

As businesses prepare to reopen on Friday, the utility encourages the flushing of internal pipes before any water use resumes.

RVAHub Staff

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The City of Richmond Department of Public Utilities (DPU) has been providing safe drinking water during the COVID-19 pandemic and it remains a priority. As businesses prepare to reopen on Friday, the utility encourages the flushing of internal pipes before any water use resumes.

With non-essential business being closed due to COVID-19 since March, water has been sitting in pipes. This water can lose the benefits of necessary disinfection, which could lead to bacteria growth and thus unsuitable for drinking, hand washing, or other uses. Additionally, turning on water after prolonged closures could disrupt plumbing materials and release contaminants into the water.

“To ensure fresh water is being used by newly reopening businesses, we strongly encourage them to flush the water in their systems. This is important to maintain the public health and safety of all residents and visitors,” says DPU Director Calvin D. Farr, Jr.

This process includes running water through all faucets, fountains, and other water treatment/enhancement systems with both hot and cold water for several minutes before using.

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Stoney: City to “cautiously move” into Phase 1 of reopening plan on Friday, May 29th

On Thursday, Mayor Stoney announced that the City of Richmond will cautiously move into Phase 1 of Forward Virginia, the state’s reopening plan. Masks will be required in all indoor spaces and restaurants will be asked to voluntarily connect patrons’ information for contact tracing purposes.

RVAHub Staff

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On Thursday, Mayor Stoney announced that the City of Richmond will cautiously move into Phase 1 of Forward Virginia, the state’s reopening plan.

“When I look at the picture in totality, given the added tools at our disposal, the current trends in our local data and my faith in Richmonders to look out for one another, I believe that Richmond can cautiously move into Phase 1 on Friday, May 29,” said Mayor Stoney at Thursday’s press conference.

During the first delay that the City of Richmond requested, the Stoney administration and Richmond City Health District expanded testing efforts, implemented a contact tracing effort, ensured every COVID-19 positive Richmonder will be able to isolate safely and securely with supported isolation, and advocated for a statewide mask requirement.

The city initially requested a modified Phase 1 reopening that maintained restrictions on places of worship and personal care and grooming services, as mass gatherings and close personal contact for extended periods of time both significantly increase chance of community spread.

Because the governor denied the city’s modified plan for reopening, Richmond will move into Phase 1 of Forward Virginia, the state’s reopening plan, with strong recommendations reflecting the mayor’s proposed modifications. Local guidance and helpful links to state guidance are available here. The state has yet to provide guidance on what Phases 2 and 3 will include.

The mayor detailed a number of best practices for residents and business owners to ensure that the city moves into Phase 1 cautiously. The best practices emerged from conversations between the Stoney administration and members of the business community, faith leadership, and health professionals.

  1. All residents who are medically able to should wear a face-covering that covers the mouth and nose when in public spaces. The wearing of a face covering does not negate the need for 6-foot social distancing.
  2. Faith communities should continue to meet virtually if possible. If in-person meetings are absolutely necessary, the mayor strongly recommends faith groups meet outside while practicing strict social distancing and enforcing the face-covering requirement.
  3. Food and drink establishments that choose to offer outdoor service at half capacity are asked to request a name and contact information of patrons who dine in for contact tracing purposes. This practice is voluntary for both patrons and restaurants. However, collecting this small amount of information for each dine-in party will go far in assisting the Richmond City Health District in tracing and containing outbreaks. Guidance on this practice is available here.

The mayor made two requests of the state: to continue to assist the city in further expanding testing capacity and in providing adequate face-coverings and hand sanitizer throughout the capital city.

“Quite frankly, we’re going to need more support from the state for our residents and our businesses to reopen safely and sustainably,” the mayor noted in his appeal. “I make these recommendations and requests of the state because, as has been my mantra this entire pandemic. Reopening should be slow and steady.”

“When public health is on the line, blindly pushing forward is not an option. Decisions must be thoughtful, and they must be based in our collective knowledge of and love for our city.”

See more reopening guidance for local businesses here: www.rvastrong.org/reopeningguidance.

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Health Innovation Consortium, Lighthouse Labs partner on health-focused startup accelerator

Richmond-based Lighthouse Labs, a nationally-recognized, top 25 seed-stage accelerator, will partner with the Health Innovation Consortium (HIC), a collaborative alliance working to make the Commonwealth of Virginia a hub for health innovation, to launch Virginia’s only health-focused accelerator program.

RVAHub Staff

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Richmond-based Lighthouse Labs, a nationally-recognized, top 25 seed-stage accelerator, will partner with the Health Innovation Consortium (HIC), a collaborative alliance working to make the Commonwealth of Virginia a hub for health innovation, to launch Virginia’s only health-focused accelerator program.

Founding partners Virginia Commonwealth University, VCU Health, and Activation Capital, launched HIC in 2019 to help bring health innovations to market. HIC and Lighthouse Labs will leverage the new accelerator this fall to cultivate a pipeline of health-related technologies through a three-month immersive learning experience, capital opportunities, and potential for funding.

Making the Commonwealth’s only health-focused accelerator program possible is Activation Capital, a nonprofit organization that focuses on early-stage ideas to foster the area’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. A grant by Activation Capital to Lighthouse Labs, along with the contributions of HIC, will support the health-focused programming by Lighthouse Labs in addition to VCU’s efforts to develop new innovations in healthcare.

The new initiative, including expertise, grants, and funding by Health Innovation Consortium, will be offered alongside an industry-agnostic vertical that will also operate as part of the 2020 fall cohort by Lighthouse Labs. Selected companies in both verticals will participate in the accelerator from August 24 to November 13, 2020, in Richmond. During the fall program, the health-focused startups and the industry-agnostic companies selected will work with top-tier mentors as they participate in targeted and adaptive programs.

“Health systems, particularly academic health systems like VCU, are looking for innovative solutions involving every aspect of health care—its delivery to consumers, its technology, and its business models,” said Peter Buckley, M.D., interim CEO, VCU Health System, and interim senior vice president, VCU Health Sciences. “The Health Innovation Consortium was designed to facilitate, support, and scale health innovation. By partnering with Lighthouse Labs, a nationally ranked start-up accelerator, we have the opportunity to attract and engage with the most promising new technologies in the country that can improve the health of our community.”

The companies selected to participate in the health-focused accelerator will use the three-month programming as a springboard to develop digital health and medical device technologies, amongst others. Founders participating in the fall cohort will also have an opportunity to tap into HIC resources, including access to an exclusive network of industry experts, early-stage venture funding, and support, after the cohort has ended.

In addition to equity-free funding, programming, and mentorship, all selected companies will have access to $1 million in advisory services and benefits from partners such as Global Accelerator Network (GAN), Kaleo Legal, Startup Virginia, and other service providers. In addition, companies accepted will participate in Demo Day(s) designed to demonstrate each selected startup to investors, alumni groups, potential customers, and peers.

“Innovation is needed now more than ever,” said Erin Powell, executive director of Lighthouse Labs. “The fall cohort by Health Innovation Consortium and Lighthouse Labs will provide traction for the most promising, high-potential startups to begin making an immediate impact in health-related industries.”

“Beyond the three-month immersive experience this fall, the post-program opportunities, and access to the Health Innovation Consortium network and connection to capital, makes this new offering the most transformative platform for those who have identified the biggest challenges in human health and healthcare and are ready to accelerate quickly to provide solutions,” said Powell.

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