The Bearded Frog closes, becoming latest victim of Vermont staffing shortage

The bearded frog in Shelburne. Photo courtesy Dickie Austin

Dickie Austin and Andrea Cousineau said they simply couldn’t find the staff to keep their restaurant open.

The doors closed definitively last week, after 16 years of activity. Unless a flood of employees materializes, Austin said the restaurant could not reopen.

“We encountered the same staffing situation that persists across the state,” said Austin, who co-managed The Bearded Frog in Shelburne with Cousineau. “It got to the point where we literally didn’t have the bodies to keep functioning.”

The labor shortage at The Bearded Frog and other restaurants is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of Vermont’s general labor shortage. The state’s unemployment rate fell to 2.1% in July. The labor force grew by 7,000 people, but was still 20,000 people lower than it was before the pandemic.

“The difficulty of hiring for Vermont businesses can be seen in the monthly job postings data which shows 15 consecutive months of total job postings exceeding 20,000,” the Vermont Commissioner of Labor said. , Michael Harrington, in a press release accompanying unemployment and labor force figures last week. .

When Covid hit, Cousineau said, many The Bearded Frog employees left the industry and never returned. She noted that training new employees takes time.

“Do you know any dishwashers? ” she asked.

Austin said the restaurants pay wages “as competitively as possible.” He declined to give specific examples.

To some degree, restaurants in Vermont share the challenges facing restaurants nationwide. A National Restaurant Association survey conducted between July 15 and August 5 found that 65% of restaurants said they did not have enough staff to meet customer demand.

Cousineau and Austin are keeping the two restaurants they manage in Vergennes, Black Sheep Bistro and Park Squeeze, open. To do this, the lifelong friends washed the dishes themselves, maintained the bar, the waiting tables and the work lines in the kitchen, Cousineau said.

It’s a frenetic schedule.

Cousineau said she arrived at Black Sheep Bistro at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. By the time she spoke with a reporter at 1 p.m., she was at Park Squeeze, where she would stay until reception staff arrived for the 4 p.m. opening. Then she planned to return to The Black Sheep, which also opens at 4 p.m., to work in the kitchen.

Austin, meanwhile, arrived at Park Squeeze at 7:30 a.m., then headed to The Bearded Frog for a meeting before heading back to Park Squeeze. He made another visit to the Black Sheep Bistro, then to the bank and the supermarket, all before a noon interview.

“Housing is a huge factor,” Cousineau said, explaining the shortage of restaurant workers.

Austin agreed, “If there’s no place for you to live, then taking a job doesn’t seem very reasonable.

In Shelburne, Austin said, there was the added complication of competition for staff with restaurants in Burlington.

“Very few of our employees at The Bearded Frog were Shelburne residents,” Austin said. Most, he said, commuted from Burlington, South Burlington or places south of Shelburne.

Cousineau and Austin have worked at The Bearded Frog since it opened.

“June 8, 2006,” Austin replied without hesitation when asked when that was.

He remembers being there two weeks before the start of construction with the owner, Michel Mahe, with whom they had worked at the Black Sheep Bistro.

Cousineau started working for Mahé at 17 as a dishwasher when he opened the Starry Night Cafe in Ferrisburgh in 2000. By the age of 23, she was chef at The Bearded Frog. She said she is most proud of the relationships she has built with her colleagues there.

Among those colleagues was Erin Wheeler, who together with her husband owns The Bobcat, in Bristol. Mahe, who died in 2015, bought the place for them to run, she said, and then they bought it.

Wheeler worked at The Bearded Frog for his first two years. The restaurant focused on burgers, she recalls, and diners could choose from so many toppings that it was difficult for the kitchen staff to keep up with the elaborate orders. Because of that experience, they only serve one burger at the Bobcat, she laughed.

Wheeler said she and her husband are lucky to be in Bristol, which has fewer restaurants, making it easier to compete for staff. The housing problem there is not as acute as in Shelburne, she added. One of the line cooks drives an hour to the Bobcat, she said, but all the others live in town.

Cousineau and Austin ran The Bearded Frog and continue to run Black Sheep Bistro and Park Squeeze on behalf of Mahé’s 19-year-old son, who starts college next week, and an investor. They said they discussed the closure with the owners.

Austin predicted staffing issues will make it difficult for Vermont to maintain the number of restaurants it has.

“We remain hopeful,” he said. “But it’s certainly difficult.”

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