Reduced hours and days of operation. Higher starting pay. Additional technology for ordering and delivery. And ghost kitchens.
These are some of the things restaurants in McHenry County and throughout the region are trying as they struggle with labor shortages, area restauranteurs said.
Jason Doren is president of McHenry County’s Illinois Restaurant Association chapter and consults with restaurant owners as they search for staff.
“There are companies I network with and one of their biggest post-[COVID-19] concerns are the people who left the industry and never came back,” Doren said. “Once [COVID-19] happened, we lost a huge portion of the employee base.”
According to the National Restaurant Association, 633,000 fewer people are working in the food service industry across the country than before COVID-19.
“No other industry has had a longer road to reach a full employment recovery,” the association said in a news release earlier this month.
Area restaurants have the same challenges.
A McDonald’s location at 1904 Richmond Road, McHenry, had to close its doors Aug. 30 because of a staffing shortage. The closure lasted about 45 minutes, said David Bear of BearCo McDonald’s. The franchisee owns three locations in the McHenry area and one in Spring Grove.
A customer shared a post about the closure via a McHenry-centric Facebook page before Bear was even aware of the problem, he said.
Addison’s Steakhouse in McHenry is having the same labor challenges, said its owner, Jon Descher.
“We are not fully staffed and haven’t been since [COVID-19] first hit,” Descher said.
HIs restaurant closed for about six weeks in 2020, then reopened with takeout and outdoor dining options. About 80% of his staff came back then, but adding in recent months has been a challenge, Descher said.
“It is very difficult to get people to show up for an interview,” Descher said. Or, they apply, interview, and then “don’t show up to start training. It is touch and go for staffing.”
Restaurants, be they sit-down, fast food or fast-casual, have had to change hours, offer higher wages, invest in technology and have fewer people doing more jobs to make up for staff shortages, Doren said.
For chain restaurants like McDonald’s, technology, including self-serve ordering kiosks and mobile phone apps, helps cover that shortage, Bear said.
“Computers, apps, kiosks, not paying with cash ... [take] time and labor. Ordering on a phone or kiosk doesn’t,” Bear said.
But the kiosks do not work as well at suburban locations where a majority of sales comes through the drive-thru lanes, he said.
That is where a mobile ordering app helps, Bear said. “It helps us get the order to the kitchen sooner and more time to prepare the food. Plus, customers get points” for free or reduced-priced food, he said.
Descher said before COVID-19, his restaurant already used a point-of-service system to send orders to the kitchen from a hand-held device. Post-COVID-19, the system helped him and his staff be “more efficient with online ordering and deliveries. We didn’t do it often before, and it became most of our business for a while.”
Before the pandemic, people would occasionally call in an order. “Now people like to do through an app where it is in front of them,” he said.
Restaurants need to let customers know their experience may have changed since before the pandemic, the restaurant owners said.
“I explain to customers – some people live in a bubble – that like prices going up in a grocery store, all of our materials [costs] are going way up,” Descher said.
“We are trying hard to keep our level of services up. I have jumped in a lot, and a lot of owners have worked harder than they have ever worked in the past two, three years” to ensure the best services, he said.
He’s also hired staff, both in the kitchen “back of house” and dining room “front of house,” who may not have as much experience in restaurants, Descher said.
“I am not being as picky to who I hire. We do trial by fire more, instead of waiting for the perfect employee,” and hope it works out for everyone, he said.
Dan Hart, owner of regional chain restaurant D.C. Cobb’s, said hiring has gotten better in the past few months, perhaps as other businesses have laid off staff.
Younger applicants under age 18 have become more common. They might be easier to train, however. “If they trained in a way that we don’t like to do things, it is harder to retrain them,” he said.
One caveat for Hart is finding executive staff with restaurant experience. “We are aways looking for experienced management. It is difficult to onboard someone who was a manager at a car dealership” to manage a restaurant, Hart said.
As some restaurants cut hours to reflect staffing problems, others have gotten inventive, including pivoting to catering instead of brick-and-mortar restaurants, Doren said.
Jim and Bernice Smith, who own 31 North Banquets and Catering in McHenry, are an example of that switch. They closed their McHenry Cafe 31 North during the COVID-19 pandemic, choosing to focus on the catering side of their business.
“We had to pivot, and that is the main reason we are here and thriving. We changed the way we conduct business,” Bernice said.
The catering and banquet side now has 72 people on payroll, up from 30 in early summer 2020, Jim said. Of those, 15 are full-time with benefits. On the weekends, the couple said, they may do seven catered events. By allowing staff to pick their schedules, they have been able to completely staff events.
“We try to be flexible. … It is on Bernice and I putting that schedule together,” Jim said.
Still, they could do 10 events on weekends if they had more people, Jim said.
Other brick-and-mortar restaurants began renting out their kitchens for pop-up or delivery-only services, Doran said. “If you look on an app or a website, it seems to be a legitimate restaurant, but it is renting kitchen space and selling online only.”
These “ghost kitchens” allow the kitchen owners to generate money off unused space and give start-up restaurants a place to cook, he said.
Renting out the kitchen can “help them make up for lost dollars and seats,” Doren said.
It used to be each restaurant had “X amount of seats. You were only able to figure profit on seat and ability to turn them over,” Doren said.
Now, focusing on take out and pick up orders instead of sit-down diners may be the long-term reality for many restaurants if labor problems persist, he said.