Help (badly) wanted
Durango's restaurants hit hard during and after pandemic

Help (badly) wanted
Sinjin Eberle - 03/03/2022

We have all seen the headlines: pandemic-related resignations have devastated the job market across the country, and there are endless examples of restaurants shifting hours or closing certain days strictly because they don’t have enough staff.

While quitting might not be as aggressive as the classic Johnny Paycheck song “Take This Job and Shove It,” it ain’t far off. There are more than 16 million people working in the restaurant industry, and unfortunately for us, many of them are simply fed up. Strict, physically demanding work environments, long and awkward hours, limited benefits, and unruly customers make restaurant work exhausting, even for the most dedicated hospitality professional. Not to mention the sheer exposure to potential infection that restaurant employees have been subjected to over the past 18 months, especially by customers who object to masking up or getting the jab.

According to The Washington Post, millions of restaurant workers have quit to shift their careers into something more stable and supported, especially with more “normal” benefits that so many people in other industries enjoy. Others have taken the opportunity forced upon them by the shutdowns to explore more creative pursuits or chase that dream job they always wanted. Since then, restaurants have struggled to backfill those jobs, even though 84% of restaurants report raising wages, providing signing bonuses and adding other compensation to try to lure workers.

Even with a national unemployment rate sitting right around 4% (nearly full employment), many sectors of the economy, with restaurants maybe more than any other sector, are still struggling to find workers. So what are people doing? It’s certainly not just sitting at home collecting unemployment as some like to accuse, because most of those programs ran their course a long time ago.

I spoke with Elias Pfeifer, former bartender and front of house server who has been a fixture at El Moro for years. While he has worked in phases at the restaurant between chunks of international travel, Elias has been deeply dedicated to hospitality in this town. After the shutdowns began, he tried to stay on and support El Moro, but finally resigned back in October to pursue some investing opportunities. He told me, “With the tough schedule and constantly dealing with entitled, disrespectful customers, I was just burned out and called it quits with no real safety net.” Now, he is working as an executive recruiter for tech firms, making solid commissions. “Now I have regular, Monday through Friday hours with holidays and weekends off,” he said. “And with all the shifting around of people changing companies, there is a lot of demand from firms trying to find good workers, so business is really good for me right now.”

From an owner’s standpoint, the situation has been just as frustrating. While keeping good employees has always been a challenge as people grow and evolve in their careers or go to college, the past two years have taken it to the next level. Layer on the obnoxious behavior of some restaurant guests, many of whom come into the dining room with an attitude of “deserving to be served” or “my tourist dollars pay your rent.” With servers and managers being thrust into a position of having to enforce things like mask mandates and social distancing, along with limited reservations and QR codes, the stress and anger they have had to endure has been a breaking point for many.

Tracy Regan, co-owner of Primi Pasta & Wine Bar with her husband Jarrod, told me about their experience through all this. They had only been open a couple of months (since Jan. 11, 2020) when this whole drama began. Over a glass of Nebbiolo, she told me, “We had many workers who were new to restaurants, and some of them decided that maybe this was not for them. Others, however, stayed on, and are now in management roles in the restaurant. Now is a great time to be coming into the restaurant scene, as you might be able to work your way up quickly.”

Even with that, it was still tough, and they had a stretch last summer where they had to close on Mondays, because they simply did not have enough staff to operate the restaurant. Additionally, on their approach to masking and social distancing, Regan told me, “We decided early on to be pretty conservative with our approach and follow the guidance from CDC and San Juan Basin Health pretty strictly,” which some customers, of course, could not get past.

Regan Briggs, Culinary Director at Ore House, put it even more bluntly: “This whole experience has really shined an unexpected light on restaurant management, too. There are some places that treat employees with respect and as an inclusive team, but a lot of others don’t, and some people are just sick of it.” She continued, “This is deep for a lot of us. It’s really personal and, quite frankly, it hurts. We truly love what we do, but at the end of the day, many people are still struggling to survive.”

Since the first wave of pandemic shutdowns hit, it’s been difficult for the restaurant industry to catch a break. Though focused relief money came through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, it has since run out and is now in Congress waiting for reauthorization. According to the Independent Restaurant Coalition, 42% of restaurants that did not receive RRF funds face bankruptcy, and nearly half were forced to lay off staff again this past December alone due to the Omicron surge.

 What you can do to help is be a good diner – be a partner in the experience of a restaurant, not merely a consumer. Kindness and patience go a long way in easing some of the tension that has been thrust upon both restaurants and their workers through no fault of their own. Our little town thrives on being good to each other, and restaurant staff is no different. Simply put, treat people with respect, and you will have the most amazing dining experience you can imagine.

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