Tuesday, December 6, 2022
Dec. 6, 2022

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Clark County restaurants struggling to serve up service

Despite increase in employment numbers, Clark County restaurants say finding enough workers still a challenge

By , Columbian staff writer
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3 Photos
Crew members Stephen Landry, left, and Roman Rico work behind the front counter during the lunch rush at the Hazel Dell Skippers.
Crew members Stephen Landry, left, and Roman Rico work behind the front counter during the lunch rush at the Hazel Dell Skippers. Since the onset of the pandemic, staffing shortages at places like Skippers have become a plague (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Walking up to Grady’s Public House in east Vancouver, patrons are immediately greeted by a handwritten sign on the door. Because of staffing issues, the note reads, the restaurant has changed its hours until further notice. Down the street, Kim’s Grill Teriyaki has hiring signs hanging in its windows.

It’s not just this strip mall where restaurants are struggling. Since the onset of the pandemic, staffing shortages have become a plague.

“It used to be in May and June of every year, I would get flooded with job inquiries and applications from high school sophomores and juniors that needed summer work,” said Randy Marsh, owner of Skippers, at 6304 N.E. Highway 99 in Hazel Dell.

By July, he didn’t have any applicants.

“It’s a big issue across a lot of sectors,” said Ed Casey, chief executive at Burgerville. Restaurants, he said, were hit hard for a couple of reasons.

First, said Casey, was the constant opening and closing of restaurants during the pandemic.

“You didn’t know if you were going to be able to keep going to work,” Casey said. “So, a lot of people just decided to go do something else. And now they’re not in restaurants anymore.”

Burgerville has been working to bring some of those folks back and also bring new people in.

“It’s a real challenge,” Casey said. Burgerville’s dining rooms were shut down for two years because of the pandemic and then staffing shortages. In some cases, Casey said, drive-thrus even had to be shuttered.

Second, Casey pointed to unemployment. Washington’s unemployment rate in July was 3.7 percent, a new low for the state.

Burgerville was finally able to reopen all of its dining rooms this spring. But not all restaurants have been so lucky. Vancouver’s DuckTales Kitchen closed for good earlier this month. The restaurant had been forced to cut its hours or close for multiple days due to staffing shortages.

“We have put forth our best efforts since COVID began,” owner Steve Waddle wrote on the restaurant’s website. “We have weathered and met many challenges through this ordeal. However, we have finally succumbed to all the negative forces we have been facing, and we see no other options but to close.”

The franchise advantage

Corporate franchises may have an easier time surviving, said Marsh. They have buying power to get cheaper goods and can afford automation, he said, while new restaurants may attract people because of their novelty and high price points.

“Who suffers?” asked Marsh, who has been in the industry for 30 years. “The restaurants in the middle — no buying power to negotiate contracts, no money for automation and the lack of staffing.”

It’s a perfect storm, he said.

Despite restaurants across the city cutting hours or closing temporarily or even permanently, a strange occurrence is at play.

As of Aug. 30, total food service employment was up by 3.3 percent in the first quarter of 2022 from where it was before the onset of the pandemic, according to Washington’s Employment Security Department. Employment was, however, still down in full-service restaurants but only by 0.5 percent. Meanwhile, limited-service restaurants saw an increase of 6 percent.

There are currently 13,700 people working in food service in Clark County. That’s 7.5 percent of all nonfarm jobs. The sector has hovered around 7 percent for the past 20 years, said Scott Bailey, the Employment Security Department’s regional economist.

Restaurants have seen a rise in taxable sales. In the fourth quarter of 2019, Clark County’s food service businesses reported $202 million in taxable sales, a number which was adjusted for inflation and seasonality. Sales then dropped 25 percent over the next two quarters before recovering by the second quarter of 2021 to reach $214 million.

Sales have since remained relatively steady. The employment department estimated sales were at $213 million in the first quarter of 2022.

Bailey noted that restaurants closing early and for days on end are losing out on even more sales.

“With more labor, there would be more sales,” Bailey told The Columbian.

Higher costs

Restaurants may have had higher sales than before the pandemic, but their costs have also skyrocketed. Food prices have gone up by 21.8 percent and labor costs have risen 18.3 percent compared with 2019, according to the National Restaurant Association. Labor costs in Washington will continue to rise as the state’s minimum wage, which is tied to the consumer price index, is expected to increase again in January.

Despite rising costs, more restaurants have opened since the pandemic. In 2019, Clark County issued 635 permits to full-service establishments. In 2022, it has issued 704. The county has also issued more permits for restaurants serving limited menus and pre-packaged foods.

By August, Marsh had hired a couple of employees. But he and his crew were exhausted from working a busy summer short-handed. Marsh ended up closing the restaurant for a week so he and his wife could take a vacation.

“This staffing thing boggles my mind,” Marsh said.