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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. 

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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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Tazza Kitchen owners bringing new Mexican concept to Patterson and Libbie

Conejo (pronounced Koh-nay-ho) will feature a lunch and dinner menu of fresh drinks, a curated list of mezcals and tequilas, house-made masa, rotisserie meats, tacos, unique salads, and vegetarian options, and a variety of classic Mexican antojitos, the owners said in a press release.

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Big Kitchen Hospitality, the Richmond-based restaurant group which owns and operates Tazza Kitchen, has announced plans for a casual Mexican restaurant at the Westhampton Commons development at the corner of Patterson and Libbie Avenues.

Conejo (pronounced Koh-nay-ho) will feature a lunch and dinner menu of fresh drinks, a curated list of mezcals and tequilas, house-made masa, rotisserie meats, tacos, unique salads, and vegetarian options, and a variety of classic Mexican antojitos, the owners said in a press release.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with Mexican Chef and cookbook author, Danny Mena, who has become an integral part of our menu and concept development,” said partner Susan Davenport. “He has a wealth of knowledge about Mexican cuisine and Mezcal – both from his upbringing in Mexico City and his work on his cookbook, Made in Mexico. He has owned and operated several Mexican restaurants in New York but was ready for a change and has moved his family to Richmond to join us on the project. As a Virginia Tech graduate, Virginia is familiar ground. The pieces just fell into place.”

“In addition to being Spanish for rabbit, Conejo is one of the varieties of Mexican heirloom corn we plan to use for our masa. And according to the Aztec myth of the 400 Conejos, divine rabbits are the gods of agave spirits. So, the word Conejo represents elements of this restaurant that are important to us. I am very excited to be here in Richmond and be a part of this team,” said Mena.

The 4,474 square foot full-service restaurant will seat 120 inside and 50 on the partially covered patio. A separate entrance will provide easy access for take-out orders.

The targeted opening date is around year-end. Big Kitchen Hospitality Partners include John Davenport, Susan Davenport, and Jeff Grant. The company has engaged 510 Architects as the architect and Whiting-Turner as the general contractor.

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Unemployment benefits aren’t the only thing keeping workers at home

Business owners, chambers of commerce types and some local officials around Virginia swore that ending enhanced unemployment benefits – of $300 a week from the federal government – would propel folks back into the workforce who’d been home during the pandemic. That may not be the case.

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Business owners, chambers of commerce types and some local officials around Virginia swore that ending enhanced unemployment benefits – of $300 a week from the federal government – would propel folks back into the workforce who’d been home during the pandemic. 

The commonwealth should play a figurative Scrooge, these folks said, because places including restaurants, hotels and small businesses needed these employees. “Turbocharge the cash registers!” they cried.

This line of thinking was a gross oversimplification of the (so-called) post-pandemic economy. Nor do I think it was by accident. Demonizing low-wage workers has been a sport in this country for ages.

Several factors have kept people on the sidelines, not just the government largesse. The recent uptick in COVID-19 infections and persistent vaccine resistance, for example, would make anybody leery of working outside the home.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has repeatedly said the commonwealth will keep doling out the checks until the Sept. 6 deadline, and a spokeswoman confirmed that to me again on Monday. It’s a wise, compassionate decision. 

About half of the states, mostly led by Republican governors, ended their programs early, however. 

Now a study by a university professor of the early impacts of canceling the benefits suggests there’s been no rush to return to the workforce – even after states declined the money. 

“This doesn’t seem to have translated into most of these individuals having jobs in the first 2-3 weeks following expiration,” said Arindrajit Dube, economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “However, there is evidence that the reduced (unemployment insurance) benefits increased self-reported hardship in paying for regular expenses.”  

Those checks have been deemed wasteful recently by critics, but several factors are keeping people at home. Shame on those who said otherwise – and depicted many Americans as freeloaders for not waiting on tables, changing sheets, or ringing up customers.

Caveats abound to Dube’s study, as CNBC reported. Some states hadn’t reverted to a lack of federal benefits very long. Dube noted more time and information are needed.

Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer was among those who urged Northam to cut off benefits sooner. His tourist-heavy locality can use workers, especially during the summer. Many of those jobs, though, didn’t pay well and can be physically demanding. Many employers are now dangling fatter paychecks, but finding workers is still a hurdle.

Dyer told me Monday the issue is moot now, since September is around the corner and with it, the end of the peak tourist season. He’d talked to many business owners who were desperate for workers, and Dyer was voicing their concerns to the guv, he told me. 

Dyer also said employers at places like Stihl Inc., which have higher-paying and higher-skilled jobs, have told him they can’t fill vacancies. “Workforce is the biggest challenge we’ve got,” Dyer said. “If we’re going to have businesses, we have to supply the bodies.” 

That’s true. 

Since the pandemic, however, many adults and families are reassessing the necessity of working outside the home. They value spending more time with their children, while giving up lengthy commutes. 

And given our notorious reputation for being overworked compared to the rest of developed nations, many Americans wonder if our former job habits still make sense. Everyone is re-evaluating the trade-offs. 

Vinod Agarwal is an economics professor at Old Dominion University and deputy director of its Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy. I knew he’d give me a balanced assessment of the unemployment insurance controversy.

Business owners who say the enhanced benefits are the sole cause of the labor shortage are just wrong, he said. Since the pandemic started, some workers left the labor force entirely. Many women, Agarwal noted, made less than their male partners, and they often assumed the primary task of helping children who could not go to in-person school. 

Minority women often had the task of taking care of elderly relatives, too. A Trump administration crackdown on J-1 visas for overseas workers also played a role, Agarwal noted, particularly in tourist-heavy areas like Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. 

Among formerly low-income workers, some now have greater flexibility and choices. “Unless the wages go up, a lot of these workers won’t return to the marketplace,” the professor said.

From daycare concerns and costs, to the aggravation of low-paying jobs, many families – especially those with two adults – are reassessing what’s important. Should they return to the market, when employers aren’t meeting their goals and conditions are less than desirable?

Enhanced unemployment benefits are going to end. Our place in the revamped economy is just beginning.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Elephant Insurance to give $300,000 to organizations impacted by COVID-19

Elephant Insurance announced that the company is launching a new initiative, known as the Helping Herd, that will donate $300,000 to organizations and programs that have been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic or who are providing COVID-19 relief to their community.

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Elephant Insurance announced that the company is launching a new initiative, known as the Helping Herd, that will donate $300,000 to organizations and programs that have been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic or who are providing COVID-19 relief to their community. The program will launch in June and gifts will be distributed between June and December 2021.

Through the Helping Herd, Elephant’s hope is to reach at least 50 organizations or programs with the funds, with gifts ranging in size from $2,000 to $20,000. Elephant team members will be involved in the selection process, either by nominating deserving groups or participating in the voting process to finalize the recipients.

The program was made possible by Elephant’s parent company, Admiral Group, which shares in Elephant’s mission of making a positive impact on local communities during challenging times.

“We know the Helping Herd initiative will be able to make a significant impact on individuals and communities that are hurting due to COVID-19, and Elephant is grateful to be in a position to step up and give back in this way,” said Alberto Schiavon, CEO. “The Elephant team – our herd – is eager to be a part of this important process, and we’re so appreciative of the support of Admiral Group to make this possible.”

To be considered to receive funds, applicants must serve the community in at least one of three areas: mental health, physical health, or community health. Interested organizations or programs will be able to apply to receive funds at https://www.elephant.com/contact/helping-herd-submission, where more details on eligibility are available.  Applications will be accepted through August 1, 2021.

In addition to the submission form, nominations will be collected from Elephant employees by survey.  A large portion of the funds are anticipated to be distributed in Virginia, where Elephant is headquartered, but Helping Herd funds will also go to organizations in other states where Elephant services are offered, including Texas.

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