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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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Restaurant employee fundraisers you can donate to right now

It’s tough out there right now for those in the service industry. With dining rooms closed and restaurants trying to stay afloat by getting creative with takeout, delivery, and other endeavors, employees without much of a safety net are hurting. Below are all of the employee fundraisers we’ve seen floating around that you can donate to right now and make a difference.

RVAHub Staff

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It’s tough out there right now for those in the service industry. With dining rooms closed and restaurants trying to stay afloat by getting creative with takeout, delivery, and other endeavors, employees without much of a safety net are hurting. Below are all of the employee fundraisers we’ve seen floating around that you can donate to right now and make a difference.

Another way you can make a difference is to donate to The Holli Fund. I (Trevor) was one of a handful of folks asked to host a virtual happy hour last week (embedded at the bottom of the post). This is an application- and need-based fund that gives grants to folks in both the front and back of house at restaurants and breweries across the area. The fund has done transformational things like paid folks’ mortgages, car payments, and fulfilled other important needs. You can learn more here and donate by texting “DONATE” and your amount (i.e. DONATE $5) to 805-518-8333.

Also check out our ongoing list of restaurants offering delivery and takeout, the coronavirus support list, and all of our COVID-19 coverage here. While we’re at it, we could use your support right now, too. RVAHub is a labor of love for both Richard Hayes and I, and we’re doing our best to keep the public up to date on important news and updates. With our ad network suspended, we’re running the site at a loss currently. It would mean the world to us if you were able to spare a couple o’ bucks and chip in to our cause. We’d love you for it.




Restaurant/employee fundraisers

 

More from Chad Williams of “30 is the New 20“:

Information on donating to The Holli Fund

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OPINION: Legislators, we need you to be leaders

“We are the businesses that drive the economy. I call on you now to see past your campaign contributors, fundraising sponsors, and lobbyists and start representing the voters of this country. Do not fail us again.”

RVAHub Staff

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By Phillip Ray

My name is Phillip Ray. Together with my brother, Chris, I own and operate Center of the Universe Brewing Company and Origin Beer Lab located in Ashland, Virginia. My brother and I rely on the staff of our small business for our livelihoods and they rely on us for theirs. We made a deal with them: they trade us their most precious commodity, their time; and in return, we offer them a safe and reliable place to work, a benefits package that provides health care in case of illness, a savings plan for their futures, a fair livable wage and a comfortable work-life balance. This week we are forced to break that deal.

This is by no means the first time our small business has faced hardships, but this is an unprecedented situation – one which I do not believe we can survive without your help. We have lost two of the three markets where our goods are sold and our revenues have been cut by 70% because of this. I am writing today to ask for your help. I am asking for you to help not just our business, but the 30 million small businesses in this country who are suffering.

Now is the time to help the workers in this country who contribute the most to the economy and receive the least amount of remuneration for their efforts. Now is not the time to send multibillion-dollar bailout packages to multibillion-dollar corporations. Those companies received their bailouts in 2018 with the historic corporate tax cut you voted into law. The result of that bailout was not improved salaries, increased benefits packages, or even a safety net for workers or the companies themselves. Instead, the corporations you bailed out participated in record stock buybacks and paid massive dividends to their shareholders. They used their bailouts for the benefit of a few wealthy stakeholders. Now, when crisis hits, they want you to use taxpayer money to bail them out again.

This is the definition of privatizing profits and socializing losses. For far too long, this country has asked the most financially vulnerable among us to bear the brunt of the fiscal pain when disaster strikes and reap the fewest rewards when the economy is booming. This crisis has proven to be no exception.

Small businesses in this country are often inefficient and ours is no exception. This inefficiency is exactly what keeps the economy moving. We spend the majority of our budgets on human power and earn razor-thin margins. Our revenues do not sit in our checking accounts or investment accounts or in our own stock ownership. We do not have executive payrolls or massive lobbying budgets. We earn and spend our money locally, benefiting the greater economy not just our own.

We are the businesses that drive the economy. I call on you now to see past your campaign contributors, fundraising sponsors, and lobbyists and start representing the voters of this country. Do not fail us again.

Pass legislation that immediately puts money into the hands of small businesses and working Americans. Pass legislation that guarantees every American access to health care. Pass legislation guaranteeing all Americans with a full-time job can support their families. Pass legislation that protects every American during times of crisis. I call on you to pass these laws and to pass them today. This is the deal you made with the American people when you asked for our votes. Now is the time to honor that deal.

Faithfully,

Phillip Ray
Co-Founder, Center of the Universe Brewing Company & Origin Beer Lab

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Salt & Forge and Jiji Frozen Custard partner on “Dining Without The Restaurant”

As more restaurants and other establishments continue to find creative ways to meet diners where they are during this time of social distancing, two local food trucks are taking the food to the people, meeting them where they are.

RVAHub Staff

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As more restaurants and other establishments continue to find creative ways to meet diners where they are during this time of social distancing, two local food trucks are taking the food to the people, meeting them where they are.

Salt & Forge and Jiji Frozen Custard are working directly with homeowners’ and neighborhood associations to deliver scratch-made salads, biscuits, and sandwiches and Wisconsin-style frozen custard.

“Dining Without The Restaurant” allows both food trucks to bring a safe restaurant experience to communities and provide low-contact meal ordering and pick-up services during a scheduled date and time. Because food trucks have limited points of contact with the general public, the risk of virus transmission is significantly lower than at a restaurant or retail outlet.

“Our motivation in doing this is to serve people as safely as possible while also preserving the economic health of our staff and empowering them with financial resources instead of cutting jobs,” Salt & Forge owner David Hahn said.

There is no cost to book the trucks. They are scheduling dinners from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week and are scheduling brunches from 11 a.m. or noon until 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

For more information or to schedule the trucks, visit https://www.saltandforge.com/diningwithout

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