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Business & Economy

As Central Ohio Restaurants Return To Full Capacity, Many Look To Ease The Staffing Crunch

 John McDuffee is the general manager and part-owner of Papa Giorgio's in Northwest Columbus.
Michael Lee
John McDuffee is the general manager and part-owner of Papa Giorgio's in Northwest Columbus.

As restaurants return to full capacity and more people get vaccinated, customers are filling dining rooms and patios. But as business improves, the restaurants have struggled to find workers. However, there are signs the food industry staffing crunch may be easing — at least for some.

Sophia Saunders remembers what Stauf’s Coffee looked like during the height of COVID-19. While they stayed open during the pandemic, they faced many changes — from take out service only, to reduction of employee hours, to even the temporary closure of some locations.

“It was kind of a stressful time because things kept changing depending on what was going on in the world," Saunders said.

Saunders is the assistant manager at Stauf’s in German Village. It's one of many Central Ohio restaurants with a “now hiring” sign out front.

Before COVID, her shop would have up to 20 staff members. But now, Saunders said they are operating with 10 to 12.

“It doesn’t seem that much of a difference, but because we’re so small here it’s noticeable," she said.

In recent weeks, Stauf’s has seen a good number of applicants. The coffee shop pays its employees $9 an hour and president Mark Swanson said they will increase that by a dollar in the next 30 days. By the fall, he hopes that they can raise it by another dollar. The shop increased its prices due to their supplier increasing theirs.

Molly Merkle is the owner of Brown Bag Deli, also in German Village. She said just this week, more people have come in asking about possible work. The deli recently brought on five new workers, but Merkle says they aren’t the shop’s typical hires.

“A lot of them are younger now, even just high school students that just want summer work," Merkle said. "We haven’t really done a lot of that in the past. It’s kind of a different demographic for us."

However, not all Ohio Restaurants are seeing an uptick in job applicants.

Currently, Ohio’s unemployment rate stands at 4.7%. This week’s Ohio Restaurant Association survey found 65% of owners saying that finding workers is a huge issue for them.

John McDuffee is the general manager and part-owner of Papa Giorgio’s in Northwest Columbus. A sign looking for new employees also hangs in the front window. But unlike Stauf’s, McDuffee said they aren’t getting much interest.

“We got a couple people, and the people that have come in have been really good applicants, but the number of applicants has been pretty sparse," he said.

McDuffee said they’ve always had a higher starting wage — $13 to $15 an hour — as well as a program where all tips get spread evenly among employees. However, he said they don’t plan any bigger adjustments to draw interest.

The lack of applicants is the same for Andy Chiou, who works at Golden Delight Bakery near Papa Giorgio’s. He said hiring new workers this spring has been a struggle. The shop even tried raising its wages from $11 to $12 for people new to the bakery business.

“It’s hard to find people to come work here," Chiou said. "I don’t know the problem."

Chiou believes that one of the reasons it’s hard to find workers is the government unemployment checks that people have taken during the pandemic. And McDuffee echoed on why that might be the reason for the lack of applicants.

“It’s hard for the restaurants to keep up with that," McDuffee said.

That’s one of the reasons Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine gave when he announced last month the state would cut off additional federal unemployment payments at the end of June. Unemployed workers have been collecting an extra $300 a week.

But as restaurants, coffee shops, delis and bakeries return to normal and staff up, Merkle of the Brown Bag Deli said she just hopes that customers are patient.

“We just appreciate the understanding from people that we are doing our best and hopefully we’ll get things kind of back to our normal soon," she said. "I feel that coming. It is a little bit of a process, but we’re getting there.”

Corrected: June 11, 2021 at 11:36 AM EDT
A previous version of the story said that Stauf's Coffee paid its employees minimum wage and that they were increasing prices to help pay their staff more. A correction was made to indicate that Stauf's pays their employees $9 an hour and they increased their prices because their supplier increased its prices.