Restaurants close dining rooms, cut hours as omicron wreaks havoc on already tight workforce

It’s starting to look like 2020 again to the restaurant business as omicron takes a bite out of an already tight workforce.

Then restaurants closed on government orders to slow the spread of COVID-19. Now, they close or return to take-out only when the latest variant infects employees, leaving them without sufficient staff to open their doors.

“Things were thin enough already, and then when you add omicron on top of that… it doesn’t take too many employees who get sick before you’re in a position where you really can’t deliver the service you want. to provide to your customers, ”said Kelsey Erickson Streufert, spokesperson for the Texas Restaurant Association.

Terry Corless, CEO of Mad Dogs Restaurant Group – which includes six restaurants, bars and a take-out beverage operation in downtown San Antonio – put it this way, “Add omicron, and you’ve got an almost untenable situation. “

Across the region this week, future diners discovered that more restaurants had closed or were no longer serving in dining rooms.

Bill Miller Bar-BQ has temporarily closed its dining rooms due to understaffing.

Ronald Cortes / Contributor

Bill Miller Bar-BQ, which has branches throughout the region, said it is temporarily closing its dining halls in San Antonio and Austin due to continuing staff shortages. The San Antonio-based chain said this week it plans to reopen in-store restaurants on Monday. Customers used its drive-thru, curbside and delivery services.

“We apologize for the inconvenience caused and appreciate your understanding,” the channel said in a Facebook post.

Jim Guy Egbert, CEO of Bill Miller, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Restaurants have been hit hard by the pandemic and have struggled for months to attract and retain employees.

Seventy-eight percent of operators surveyed by the Texas Restaurant Association last year said they didn’t have enough workers to meet customer demand, Streufert said.

In response, many are raising wages and offering hiring bonuses and other incentives. Bill Miller said in April he would increase his starting salary to $ 12 an hour, from around $ 10 previously offered for many positions.

When dining rooms closed at the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year, many employees lost their jobs. Higher pay and better hours and benefits elsewhere, health issues and a desire to go back to school or try something new have prompted some to leave the industry temporarily or permanently.

“A lot of these people went into other industries,” Streufert said. “Some of them will come back, but a lot of them probably won’t because they already have a good situation elsewhere.”

A customer discovers that the dining room at the Bill Miller Bar-BQ restaurant on Bandera and Guilbeau roads is temporarily closed.

A customer discovers that the dining room at the Bill Miller Bar-BQ restaurant on Bandera and Guilbeau roads is temporarily closed.

Ronald Cortes / Contributor

Parents also face daycare and school closures or reduced capacity, making it difficult for them to return to work, she added.

As the pandemic nears the end of its second year, the spread of the omicron variant is the latest curve the industry faces. As employees fall ill, restaurants see no option other than closing and scaling back operations.

Corless said three of Mad Dogs restaurants have closed because managers and staff are sick and it has been difficult to find test kits to make sure the remaining workers are safe.

But keeping the chain’s locations staffed has been a challenge for the past 18 months, he said. The company has raised wages and is offering a $ 300 signing bonus, among other perks, in an attempt to fill jobs. The salary varies depending on the position, but salaries have generally increased from 20% to 25% or an additional $ 3 or $ 4 for hourly workers.

Despite the latest challenges, Corless said he was grateful to be operating again after being reeling from the mandatory shutdowns at the start of the pandemic. It also relies on San Antonio’s location, cost, weather, and attractions to continue to attract tourists.

“There will be life after COVID,” Corless said. “I think we are very well positioned.

Streufert is also optimistic.

“We’re in the trenches of this variant right now and we’re going to see more and more restaurants having to pivot and adjust their model due to the employee shortage,” she said. “We’re going to be able to get over that and come back to a much more normal pace, hopefully pretty quickly. “

Cappy Lawton, patriarch of the family behind Mama’s Cafe, Cappy’s, La Fonda on Main and Cappyccino’s, said all of his company’s 260 or so employees were fully vaccinated and many had received a booster. So he was surprised when some started testing positive for the virus about a week ago. About 20 of them are sick and the Lawton family decided to temporarily close restaurants for two days earlier this week.

They were already understaffed.

Lawton said they were “very, very picky” about hiring and struggling to find employees. They pay at least $ 15 an hour and have offered hiring and referral bonuses, but he said it hasn’t made a big difference.

“It’s a very, very difficult time for everyone in any business, I think, not just in the restaurant business,” Lawton said.

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