At press time, the big yellow sign above the door of the soon-to-open Serafina restaurant in Scarsdale, where Fig & Olive once stood (before COVID, in part, shut it down), reads: “$500 signing bonus,” in bold, navy-blue letters. That same message — including an array of perks — beckons on the job-openings page of the NYC-based chain’s website.
It’s a clever and necessary tactic, with an untold number of restaurant workers earning better money on unemployment than in their paychecks, but it’s not one that many restaurant owners in Westchester can afford, following a financially crippling period of more than a year.
“This is the worst I have seen the market in my entire career, and I started pretty young,” observes Constantine Kalandranis, chef/owner of The Greekish, with locations in Harrison and Nyack.
Michael Glick, owner of The Shop Ardsley, says it’s “impossible” to find new employees. “I’ve invested in ads [on multiple job boards] and did not receive a single prospect,” he says. Similar situation for Jimmy Rugova, who owns Dolphin Restaurant and TaqueRio Taco Bar, both in Yonkers. “In the past, I would average about 15 to 20 responses [to job ads],” he explains. “Now, I’m lucky if I get three people to respond, and only one might show up for a scheduled interview.”
The Bit’s Scott Broccoli has been fortunate to see a handful of prospective employees cross his Dobbs Ferry threshold, yet he remains in the same predicament as his fellow restaurateurs. “The applicants who are coming in have little-to-no experience in the service industry.” For Glick, that translates to a scenario in which “I am leaning hard on my dedicated senior staff and training college kids from scratch.”
Adding insult to injury, the restaurants’ suppliers are also suffering staffing issues, particularly in their factories and processing plants, resulting in delayed shipments, eye-popping price increases, and, worst of all, product shortages. “Things you’d never expect,” says Nick Livanos, whose Livanos Restaurant group owns Moderne Barn and City Limits Diner in Armonk and White Plains, respectively. “One week, I couldn’t get hanger steaks,” he says. “That’s never happened.”
Livanos says eggs and canola oil cost double what they used to, along with pork, beef, and chicken. Glick, whose venue serves breakfast daily, notes that bacon has tripled in price.
John Racanelli, of First Generation Hospitality, which owns Scarsdale’s Pizza & Brew and Via Forno Wood Fired Pizza & Vinoteca, as well as Public Pizza Italian Restaurant & Bar in Yonkers’ Ridge Hill, says he gets a letter a week from his suppliers, both large and small, announcing the latest price increase. “Across the board, everything is up 30 to 40 percent — if it’s even in stock.”
Still, he and his industry colleagues remain optimistic, believing there is light at the end of the tunnel. Veteran restaurateur and chair of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management at SUNY Westchester Community College, Philip McGrath, predicts the industry will bounce back — but not without major changes. “Restaurant owners have to make the job more attractive to workers,” many of whom are young people who view quality of life as more important than money. “They need to pay their staffs better, treat them well, offer health insurance, a 401(k), vacation time, a flexible schedule, and decent, stable hours without overtime unless they want it.”
But, here’s the rub, as McGrath sees it: “Will consumers understand that they will have to pay more for their steaks?” Broccoli is not so sure. “It’s hard to manage the expectations of our customers; most don’t understand what we are going through,” he says. “We’re fielding complaints about slow service and high prices. We are doing the best we can, but our hands are tied.”
In such unexpectedly straining times, when many other industries are enjoying a greater return to normality, “You really appreciate the team you have,” says Kalandranis, especially when face-to-face with potential new employees who are “more demanding now and know they are needed.”
Kalandranis believes it’s more critical than ever for restaurant owners to “self-reflect” and focus on “how important it is to have a good team.” He even has a recipe for public displays of staff appreciation: “Being nice, showing them love, and letting everyone be silly more.” That, he points out, “has really tightened up our team and made us really do some powerful things with fewer people.”
Plus, he’s also washing dishes now. “A lot of us owners are.”