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Local restaurants endured the summer of ‘Now Hiring,’ but it hasn’t been easy for some

Alma Cruz, manager of The Golden Pony, is one of many supervisors who have found the current hiring market challenging. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor, with additional reporting by Eric Gorton

Like many restaurants and retail stores across the country, Harrisonburg businesses have faced some challenges in finding — and keeping — employees this summer, although their experiences have been almost as diverse as the types of food and products they sell. 

Managers at four establishments told The Citizen they found ways to remain fully staffed throughout the pandemic, or only experienced temporary periods of being short-staffed. But four others reported that they’ve experienced ongoing staff shortages that have added stress on existing employees or affected their service.

The Golden Pony, for instance, one of the city’s most prolific music venues pre-COVID, has had to limit the shows they can host due to being short-staffed. Manager Alma Cruz said they’ve also had to keep closing at midnight, even after the governor allowed bars to resume serving alcohol later. 

“I’m at the point where I’m just hiring anyone who’s nice … if you’re nice and I can teach you something, I can work with that,” she said. 

Employers across the country have been grappling with post-pandemic worker shortages, as major news sources like The New York Times and Fox Business have reported. The number of job openings nationally continues to rise, up to 10.1 million in June from 9.4 million openings the month before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics latest figures released this week. That represents 6.5% of the total number of U.S. jobs. New openings in professional services, retail and accommodations/food services areas were all in the six-figure range, helping to drive up that increase.  

When Cruz spoke with The Citizen in late July, The Golden Pony had fewer than 20 employees, although she said they’ve hired three new people since then. The positions that have been hardest to fill are cooks and experienced bartenders. 

“It’s one of those things where you lose people because they’ve been in the industry so long that they want a change,” she said. They lost several employees earlier in the pandemic, when they had to enforce mask and social distancing guidelines. That could be particularly difficult when customers weren’t compliant. 

“A huge part of the turnover happened because there were all these restrictions,” Cruz said. “And they needed to happen, but … once those restrictions were lifted, I think it’s [become] a lot less stressful.”

On the bartending end, it’s hard to hire people who don’t have much experience. 

“We can teach them how to make a Manhattan and an Old fashioned,” Cruz explained, but keeping up with a rush of complicated orders takes skill. 

For those who have stayed, it’s felt like “running on fumes for as long as you can.”

Frustrations of finding and keeping employees

Mikey Reisenberg, owner of the Korean eatery Mashita, said he’s also been short staffed in the kitchen – so much so that he’s had to largely suspend operation of his food truck to focus on the brick-and-mortar restaurant. 

“I’ve got a solid crew of loyal staff members who have stuck with me through the pandemic,” he said, but he’s been two people short for a while now. 

The most frustrating parts for Reisenberg have been the number of people who schedule interviews and don’t show up and those who accept the job but only work for a few days or perhaps a week before quitting. 

“We’re shelling out all of this money to train these people with the expectation that 90% will not stick around,” he said. 

Cy Khochareun, co-owner of the restaurants BEYOND and Taste of Thai, and the Harrisonburg location of the franchise Popeyes, said he started to feel the crunch four or five months ago. He said he was lucky to have his teenage son working at BEYOND, and he recently brought his daughter in, too. Still, they’re two or three employees short both there and at Popeyes.

It’s a “tremendous impact for my staff here,” he said. “It’s crazy how much business we have – right now, business is very good. And I’ve been pushing, trying to motivate the people that work here, paying them overtime.”

Steve Pizarro, the founder of Cuban Burger, told The Citizen in mid-June that he normally had between 25 to 30 employees, but was down to 12. Because of this, Cuban Burger had to keep tables spaced out to limit the number of customers coming in.

Pizarro had been putting in 12-plus hour days, doing everything from washing dishes to seating people, he said.

Mashita and The Golden Pony have tried various strategies to get applicants in the door, and to keep them. Reisenberg paid for sponsored posts to run on social media, but he said those “have been severely ineffective.” 

Once he hires someone, he uses a “rapid raise” system to incentivize them to stay. Employees are given an initial assessment after their first week, and if they have experience or are learning, “you immediately get a dollar or two raise, and after that, basically every week or two is another dollar raise so that you’re exceeding $14 an hour.”

Cruz said The Golden Pony also raised wages for kitchen staff and started sharing tips among the front of house staff on the restaurant’s main floor — not to be confused with the music venue on the lower level — to ensure that all servers make “well above” $15 an hour.

Focus on company culture

Chance Ebersold of Black Sheep Coffee said the coffee shop had a temporary staffing crunch earlier this summer when previous employees’ leases ended and they moved out of Harrisonburg. Similarly, Lauren Penrod of Midtowne Market said she had to manage a temporary shortage when several employees took overlapping vacations this summer.

For the places that haven’t had any problems getting or retaining staff, owners cite workplace culture and compensation for their success.

Becca Miller — the co-owner of Commonwealth Pizza, Inc., that operates 15 Domino’s locations throughout the Shenandoah Valley and Charlottesville — said she started working at the Harrisonburg location 24 years ago as a delivery driver, then moved up to buy her own stores. That upward mobility is a key attraction for employees, she said, as every general manager is promoted from within the company.

“Our mantra is free kindness with every order. It has been for 20 years. But we try to remind our employees that that goes for us as well,” she said.

Miller said “everyone is hiring” right now, but with the coming influx of students, she’s not worried about finding the new hires needed to keep up with the collegiate demand for pizza.

Gillian Ritter, co-owner of The Little Grill Collective, said the restaurant’s cooperative ownership model and atmosphere draw in young, “fringe” workers. 

“Not to say that any of the other businesses in town are like this, but they have a tendency, kitchens in particular, to be a little bit toxic,” Ritter said. “They are very competitive, and there is a culture of killing yourself for the job and not really getting compensated for it, but doing it because that’s what you do. And we have a little bit less of that.”

She attributes the worker shortage, in part, to people who were laid off or left the workforce during the pandemic realizing how much they value work-life balance — and having a job they don’t dread going to. 

“It’s the onus on us as business owners to make sure that we are attractive in more ways than one,” Ritter said.


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