Central Texas restaurants navigate changing labor landscape

Texas restaurants are wrestling with a staffing shortage.  

In April 2021, the Texas Restaurant Association surveyed restaurant owners and found that 91 percent of respondents said they had a position they were struggling to fill. 93 percent said they believe recruiting and retaining employees will be more difficult when the pandemic is over.

Cedar Park Pub bartender Austin Price says his bar needs to hire two bartenders, explaining that "only one" person has interviewed for a bartending job at the pub since the pandemic began. The staffing shortage means Price and three other bartenders must work to split up the pub's shifts. The businesses operating hours are Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. and Sunday 12 p.m. to 12 a.m.

"We need two more people so that we can fill those spots and be able to have the time off." said Price. Tuesday, Price’s co-worker called out sick, meaning he had to work a double.

"I got home at about… 2:45 [a.m.] Ate a little bit. Tried to fall asleep by like 4 [a.m.] Woke up, back up by 6 [a.m.] Got back up here over the bar at 6:30 [a.m.] So, yes, I am burnt," he said. "I am very much so burnt [out.]"

Lara Werner, general manager of Vinaigrette Austin, said she believes it’s "the unknown of paycheck to paycheck" that is driving people out of the industry. She added "...If you do go to a job that is still paying $2.13 or whatever their wage is going to be, it's the uncertainty, especially during this time. Are we going to be able to pay our rent? Are we going to make our payments for our car payments or whatever it is?"

To eliminate the "unknown" Vinaigrette raised their prices and employee wages last year. They also did away with tipping, though Werner says many customers still choose to leave gratuity.

"This is going to be a culture change for not only the workers and the managers, but also the consumers, the people that come to eat." said Dr. Steven Rayburn, who teaches at Texas State University’s McCoy College of Business and worked in the service industry for years before pursuing an academic career.

Rayburn believes many view work in the service industry as "temporary." When the pandemic hit, it limited work and expedited many workers' exit from the field, placing what he calls an "outsized strain" on the industry.

"It's a great industry. It's a great career for a lot of folks, but they have got to see it as a career. And so when people start in at entry-level positions, they have to know there's a future in this for me." he explained.

Werner also highlighted the importance of growth and promoting within a company. She started at the restaurant as a server.

"[Vinagrette’s owner] really wanted to focus on this actually being a profession because, you know, people do work hard. And so by paying them, it really kind of says, ‘hey, we see what you're doing.’ And then we want people to come back and take this serious and take customer service service. And so by paying them, I think that, you know, people just want to stay." she said.

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