KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Finding help has been hard for several places where we eat and drink in Kansas City.
From reduced hours, to closing on certain days, to buying a robot to run food, some restaurants are looking for ways around the staffing shortage.
While last month saw job numbers continue to grow in the industry, a National Restaurant Association Survey shows half of the restaurant owners it surveyed said finding and keeping enough employees was their biggest challenge in July.
KSHB 41 is taking this story 360, talking to:
- Servers, past and present
- The Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association
- Restaurants trying to adapt
At Waldo Pizza, they may start with flour for a perfect pie, but it is so much more than making dough. Even when you have all the ingredients, any way you slice it, you still need enough staff to serve it.
“It’s just a continuing battle,” general manager Aaron Kanatzar said. “We’ll go through about 100 applications and maybe get about four people to work here, and we’re lucky if all four of them stay a month.”
So they decided to close on Tuesdays.
“It was a way to give our staff a break and not overwork them and take care of the people we have right now,” he said.
Waldo Pizza is hoping to reopen on Tuesdays in the fall, but for now, they continue to have open interviews on those days.
“People want to eat and it’s hard to feed everybody when you don’t have enough people,” he said.
In Grandview, hopeful customers found a sign on the door of Housewife that read the restaurant would be closed that day “due to staffing shortages,” and thanking customers for their support.
“I thought it was over with,” said Cedric Thomason, who came to eat. “I had no idea it still was having an issue with staffing people.”
Dennis and Susan Olla were disappointed, but not necessarily surprised.
“Kinda seen this a couple other places before, so we’re not totally shocked,” Dennis said.
At Sayachi in the Brookside neighborhood, you’ll find sushi delicately made by a skilled sushi chef who doesn’t hand it to a food runner, but puts that sushi on a talking robot to deliver to diners.
Owner Carols Falcon admits it was an investment, but one he says is paying off in his staffing struggles. He said staffing is his biggest issue with Sayachi and his other Jarocho restaurants.
When we first spoke to Falcon earlier in the summer, we asked how many people worked in his three restaurants in March 2020.
“I would say probably like 50. Right now, we run the places with 20 maybe at the most,” he said. “Less than half.”
He said he has recently been able to hire three people. Still, to keep things running, he has been jumping in to serve or wash dishes when needed. From cutting back hours or even days, the restaurant is open to trying to offer employees more balance.
“A lot of people want to do a career in this and so for those people, we are able to provide insurance and 401k and things like that,” he said.
The robot is another way he’s trying to adapt that allows him and his current employees a bit of freedom. Freedom he says to run a smaller staff even on busy nights. Servers can take more tables with the robot’s help and hopefully make more money.
When asked if Falcon was in a sustainable place with his restaurants, he said, “Yes and no. Yes for a week or two, for a month, but after that there’s always…there’s still the shifting.”
When asked what Falcon would like diners to know when they go out to eat right now, he said simply, “Just be kind.”
The Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association:
“Less table service, more quick delivery,” Bill Teel of the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association said.
Those are just a few of the permanent changes he said we could see while some Kansas City area restaurants struggle to hire enough staff.
“Staffing is still the number one issue and a lot of managers are having to work twice as hard. Managers are, you know, having to sometimes wash dishes and bus tables.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that food services and drinking places did add 74,000 jobs across the United States in July. That builds on several months of improvement but that is still 635,000 jobs below February 2020.
Their data shows leisure and hospitality has regained 7 million jobs since April 2020 and is still down 1.2 million since February 2020, leaving more ground to make up than several other industries they track.
It also shows as of June, people quit jobs in accommodations and food services at a higher rate than other industries.
“A lot of them have moved on to different new industries. I’ve heard kind of anecdotally that a lot of restaurant workers have moved into the construction business,” Teel said. “It’s difficult and it’s slow to get better.”
Tyler Smith, a server at Sayachi, just came back to restaurant work this year after leaving just a few months into the pandemic.
“Just anxiety, wanted to get away from it all. It just wasn’t the same going from serving tables to doing to-go, everything like that. So it was time to make a change, mental health-wise it was definitely necessary,” Smith said.
While he loved his new 9-5 schedule, he says he made the decision to return to the industry because "the money is better serving and bartending.”
However, he does not plan to remain long-term.
"I’d be surprised in the next five-10 years if I’m still doing it.”
He adds that he doesn’t mind working with a robot.
“It’s filling a gap, 100%,” he said. “Everyone is looking. I don’t know a single place that’s comfortable in their staff right now.”
Smith says he thinks in the past, there were more people picking up shifts than there are now.
“They reevaluate what they want for life. An extra $100 or $200 a week just isn’t worth it for the time away from family,” he said.
Prioritizing family is why teacher Annie Mitchell said she left her second job as a server a few months before the pandemic began.
“It was just taking a lot of time away from my kids. I was working late at night and so I just decided, not worth it anymore,” she said. “I honestly, my husband and I have talked about this, we’re like, where are these people going that are quitting?”
Park University sent us information from Dr. Nicolas Miceli, an associate professor of management/human resources, which said our tight labor market means competition for labor is high. It also included that people have more choices and may be taking jobs they like better or with better pay or conditions.
David Mannon and Leah Kappeas said they haven’t been back to dining in person long.
“To actually enjoy and have like a true date...it’s been a few months,” Kappeas said.
They say while they’ve really had great service, they do notice a difference than before the pandemic.
“Longer wait times because there’s more takeout,” they said. “I think people are very short-fused and then also very standoffish.”
When Mitchell goes out, she still sees it through a server’s eyes.
“I usually try and tip over 20% at this point, because if you’re paying attention, you can tell that waiters, servers, are serving multiple tables, maybe not even in their own section so I can sympathize,” she said.