Food for Thought

John Bennett, from the family behind Brophy Bros., On The Alley, Benchmark Eatery, and Farmer Boy, offers some thoughts on the local restaurant workforce and how it has been affected by the pandemic:

To Those We Wish To Serve

Santa Barbara’s restaurant industry, having suffered an almost fatal blow from the pandemic quarantine, is now dealing with lingering side effects. Even as restaurant sales are rebounding from the pandemic-hammered levels of a year ago, Santa Barbara full- service restaurants are struggling to ramp back up because they can’t recruit enough employees. Even with 1.8 million restaurant workers displaced by the crisis since February 2020, the local full-service restaurant industry’s labor crunch is in full force.

I assure you that full-service restaurant operators understand that service will be more important than ever as guests unleash their pent-up demand for enhanced restaurant experiences. They’re going to want to be waited on, pampered, and served an experience they could never recreate at home. And it will be up to restaurants to deliver, because even as that pent-up demand fuels dine-in traffic, customers will remain aware of the convenience we delivered during the pandemic. They’ll know how to dial up delivery, order-ahead, pickup, shop curbside, and all those channels that kept them afloat during COVID. They will not be happy when they return to dine-in if the experience is not as satisfying. The loss of an experienced workforce is, therefore, a side-effect of the pandemic.

Many in the community may be wondering, “What happened to all the wonderful servers we came to know and look forward to seeing again? Where did they go?”

1. While restaurants were furloughing their whole workforces, employers in other industries kept hiring. Businesses like supermarkets, e-retailers and fulfillment warehouses scarfed up the former busboys, servers and kitchen workers, who welcomed the relative safety those fields afforded.
2. Rival industries tried to lock in their employees by raising pay. Target, for instance, temporarily raised its standard pay to $15 an hour, and Amazon increased its starting wage to the same amount.
3. Because restaurant workers are more exposed to the COVID-19 virus, hospitality occupations became less and less attractive.
4. Women, the very backbone of the restaurant business, fell out of the workforce due to child-care issues and school not being in full swing.
5. The extension of the enhanced unemployment benefits of $300 until September 6th enabled restaurant employees to wait a little longer before jumping back in.
6. College being held remote and not on campus removed most of the UCSB students from our labor force.

Restaurant work has been the mainstay employment for Americans in transition since the end of World War II. They have been attracted to the flexible hours, high hourly tipped income, the entertainment atmosphere and the magic that comes with being of service. They will return but unfortunately, it’s not likely until after the summer. We hope the guests are aware of this struggle and show some empathy for the workforce carrying the load.

John Bennett

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11 Responses to Food for Thought

  1. Josh says:

    Really well explained and written. I couldn’t agree more. I hope people read this and continue to support the restaurant business. I believe that he is right that this is a critical time. The industry is on life support, and if we aren’t there to support our fabulous local restaurants, the consequences will sadly be permanent.

    As much as we did begin to suffice on “to go” when we just didn’t have the zeal to cook for the 10th straight night, one thing that I think isn’t mentioned as much is the environmental impact of the “to go” food biz. As glad as I was to have those options in a pandemic, as we return to normal, I hope that business subsides for a return to in person dining and then less waste.

    For all those who would have a critical eye, I say look at it the other way … if the busser missed filling your water for a few minutes, guess what, you still won’t have to wash dishes tonight 🙂

  2. j.j. says:

    The struggle is real, and we are all doing our best to weather the depleted workforce. I thinbk we can also add in #7…So many restaurants that are allowed larger expansion space than others with just parklets or no additional space (on Cabrillo, the Promenade and Victoria St) have gotten so greedy, that have doubled…even tripled their pre-pandemic sizes. This not only steals revenue from their fellow local business owners, it also steals their employees (we had about 50% poached already). I don’t think the city’s idea of “recovery” was to allow additional occupancy than pre-pandemic, but they sure haven’t tried to stop it. Look at Chase, Oku, Fishhouse, Toma, Mizza, Finney’s, Mezcal, Cubaneo…on and on…many others in the same areas only took what was equitable to other restaurants, but the greedy ones went all in…and then offered top dollar to staff, exspanded hours of operation…and heck, even bragged about it in local press…such as the “record sales on Memorial Day weekend”…all because of what the city gave them and didn’t allow others. I had a dishwasher come and apply, and told me he is making $21/hour at his other job down on Cabrillo…so wouldn’t take my offer of $16/hr…its a major crisis created by the city, not the pandemic..the city’s “recovery” plan will be the death of more businesses than the pandemic & lockdowns were. Recovery is a cycle of life, not just one element…this shift in labor will all be displaced once these users free real estate and govt labor money dries up. All these employees will be looking for work again…except this time there won’t be many other restaurants left after this upcoming Winter leaves only the businesses hand selected by the city council & mayor still afloat. If we want recovery, it starts at the November election…bring in a mayor and a city council that stands for equity among our community businesses…not one who abuses the power of “emergency” to benefit their financial supporters.

  3. Tax says:

    Bottom line: pay people a living wage

  4. Christine_Z28 says:

    Maybe our local restaurants should jump on the growing bandwagon of ditching the tip system to offer a living wage and benefits. Sure, owners could make a better profit within the existing system once college kids come back to town. But college kids aren’t a professional workforce for the medium- to higher-end spots. Isn’t it time that this industry steps up and recognizes their hard working, specialized partners? Re: Ty Warner and the situation with the Biltmore.

  5. Maureen says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. We want the restaurant employees who continue to work to feel supported and appreciated by us as customers and not blamed for weaknesses In service that are not their fault. It helps to know all this.

  6. Fay says:

    I’ll support, although I will NEVER loose my COVID curves at this rate.

  7. Hefe says:

    This detailed analysis is accurate. Service currently is frequently mediocre to bad in the full service restaurants we frequent.

    For that reason we find ourselves cooking at home more or choosing counter order instead.

    Something not mentioned is the added layer of labor required to comply with covid guidelines and the added work created with the parklets.

    The Fitness industry is experiencing similar challenges as well.

  8. Robby says:

    Also not added is the increased stress that the front of house staff has to deal with now. We are expected to deal with the people who don’t want to wear masks (because our health doesn’t matter due to us being wage slaves I guess), people spitting on us, yelling at us, and just being vile human beings to people just trying to do our jobs and comply with local health laws so we don’t get shut down or fined.
    I know where I work we have just given up. Our spirits are broken and we just don’t give a flying eff anymore about masks. We’re all vaccinated (but still wear masks due to the law), so when someone goes on a political rant about them (or somehow forgets that they have to wear them despite being required to for the past 14 months), we just smile and nod and kick them out. Your restaurant staff wants to help people but if you, the owners and managers, don’t back them up when someone is being rude and vile to them then the staff you’ll have to hire and train will co$t you more than a lost employee.

  9. Hefe says:

    I feel terrible for ALL the businesses that have suffered through the pandemic.

    It is clear that by circumstance some restaurants haD the opportunity to operate a substantial volume outside and others did not. I do find it curious that some especially on State st were allowed to take a huge amount of real estate for parklets.

    It looks like a function of what’s next door. Places like the chase with retail, Fitness and office took advantage of the opportunity that presented once again by circumstance.
    It seems the city could have developed a formula for how much was available. Then again, I don’t think it’s fair to hindsight this.

    When the opportunity arose I doubt anyone did or would voluntarily take less space to be fair to others. You take what is available to best stay alive.

    Honestly it looks to me that maybe 4 or 5 took it to the extreme. I think the effect across all of SB restaurants is neglible.

  10. j.j. says:

    I wouldn’t quite say it is hindsight. There were MANY businesses that addressed this with the city last May (and June, and July and so on)…it is more a lack of foresight, and caving to pressure of our city’s highest property tax payers. When you elect an official FOR the city, you should expect foresight…and not shrug it off as hindsight. Most every other city across the US, took the extra one day to spray paint perimeters in which was compliant. Our city also did have an equitable formula written up. 6′ from the center line and as wide as the storefront. After a couple weeks 1 restaurant expanded a little. Then when they weren’t held accountable, they grew more. And then again….and again. Then the neighbor said, hey wait…I want more…and they grew…and then they grew again. The State Liquor Dept approved the growth by the perimeters set forth…but turned a blind eye “to help” when they illegally grew outside those perimeters. Now, I am not sure where you see only 4 or 5 taking advantage of it…Cabrillo…State Street…at least 30-40% are grossly over that equitable guideline…and 90% are over it period. The city’s response….”well, too late now…we can’t ask them to scale it back”….um, you sure as heck can…you created the monster by turning a blind eye, and you are accountable for its impact. Now with inside open 50%, soon to be 100% that is similar to a competitive increase of 10-15 new restaurants (based on capacity) all opening in that small distance. So, pretty sure that does equate to a over-taxed labor pool. But yet, it is still enforced under the “emergency” tag, as a new line…called recovery?
    At this point, any business that loses revenue or goes out of business has a clear shot to go after the city for causing “fracture” which in turn directly (and unnaturally) forced their collapse. Then, when Public Market (huge tax bill and big Murillo supporter) flexed their influence…**poof** Victoria St is closed (but only that one side…too bad Ca Dario, too bad Vittoria…all the meanwhile all the real bars were forced closed, and only restaurants were allowed open…a lot of these same greedy owners became bars…and I guess you can be complacent with those actions and write it off as circumstance to survive…some of us see that as unethical and greedy…and those are the businesses that should not receive any local support. They stole from their neighbors and recorded record sales and profit…that is not survival….is it?.

  11. Trish says:

    I agree with much of this but would like to add the following perspective too. We are still in the middle of a pandemic. Many of us have people at home that are not vaccinated and can still get sick. We are trying to avoid that. Also, with so many anti-maskers/anti-vaxxers out there who frequently behave angrily towards people who are just trying to do their job, going back to work in a potentially hostile environment does not sound like fun.

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