For more than a year, restaurants have been waiting for the day when they could have full dining rooms again.
With vaccinations increasing and cases declining, that day may come soon. Gov. Jay Inslee has set June 30 as the official statewide reopening date, which may happen earlier if 70% or more of Washingtonians ages 16 and older initiate vaccination.
But in Skagit County, as in the state’s big cities, restaurants face staff shortages — and tourist season looms.
Calico Cupboard, with locations in Anacortes, La Conner and Mount Vernon, had about 120 employees before the COVID-19 pandemic began, said General Manager Brenda Schmidt. Between the three locations, the restaurant now has about 90 employees and would like to get back up to full staff, she said.
Schmidt said while turnover is normal for restaurants, Calico Cupboard has had more trouble than usual replacing employees who have left.
The breakfast/lunch restaurant ran short-staffed during the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in April, and managers had to pick up shifts, she said.
“We were at an all-time low [for employees],” Schmidt said.
Many recent job applicants have been 17- and 18-year-olds, Schmidt said. A challenge with hiring teens is that labor restrictions prohibit them from operating certain equipment, she said.
“Your run-of-the-mill local adult, we’re not seeing those coming in looking for work,” Schmidt said.
She said with fewer employees, the restaurant has had to get creative. Each location is opening a half-hour later and closing an hour earlier, and staff are sharing more duties.
Despite these challenges, the restaurant is preparing to fully reopen when it is allowed to do so. Schmidt said full reopening is important to “getting back to some kind of new normal.”
“We’ll just open it up and everybody will work longer days and more hours,” she said.
She said the increased workload is taking a toll on employees.
“Going into the busiest months of summer, July and August, we are trying to get people on board, hired and trained,” she said.
Magnolia Grill in Sedro-Woolley has also faced challenges finding staff.
Owner Connie Weech said she is looking at making changes to the restaurant’s wide-ranging menu to make it more manageable for new employees.
Like other establishments, the “comfort food with a twist” restaurant has bumped up wages by a few dollars an hour, Weech said.
“I can’t afford to offer a lot,” she said. “We are still new, still within four years [of opening]. I haven’t made a profit. I’m hanging on by the skin of my teeth financially.”
She said it’s a “chicken-and-egg” situation. If the restaurant had proper staff, it would be able to serve more customers. If the restaurant served more customers, it might be able to offer higher wages and attract more staff.
Weech said without additional staff, Magnolia Grill will not be able to handle a full reopening.
“That’s what the concern is right now, and that’s what’s really depressing,” she said. “I’m like ‘Look how hard it is right now. Can you imagine if we’re fully open?’ “
Weech said one challenge is that several employees with children have lost child care or aren’t able to afford it. When they aren’t able to come to work, Weech has had to fill in.
“I can’t be a backup cook and backup server, that’s where it’s beyond exhausting,” she said. “I’m going on 30 days without a day off.”
5b’s Bakery & Eatery owner Em Beals realized last week she had clocked 100 hours in one week — and still had a Saturday to go.
Staff shortages, shipping and securing supplies are the three main challenges the Concrete bakery is facing, Beals said in an email.
Operating a business in east Skagit County has always had its difficulties, from distance to weather to a limited employee hiring pool, she said. But because of pandemic-related challenges, such as masks, supply chain issues and staff shortages, things have gone “completely askew,” she said.
She said the bakery — which Beals said is one of the largest private employers in east county — normally receives about 30 job applications in March. This year, the bakery received two, and neither applicant showed up for scheduled interviews, Beals said.
“The purpose in locating the bakery, at the onset, in Concrete was and still is to give community members an opportunity to apply and work at an entry level job, gain skills, to then take out into the general workforce,” she said in an email.
She said without adequate staff, the bakery may have to shorten its hours during the busy summer season when the North Cascades Highway pass is open.
The Fork at Skagit Bay, a new casual fine dining restaurant in La Conner, has a twofold problem: higher-than-usual demand for dining, and not enough staff, said co-owner David Kas.
The restaurant has a sister location, the Fork at Agate Bay, in Bellingham.
“Our fear three months ago when looking at La Conner is we would have a room full of staff and not be able to have customers in because of restrictions,” he said. “[Now] we have the exact opposite.”
Sales in May at his Bellingham restaurant were up 25% from May 2019, he said.
Kas said he expects a “tsunami” of customers if the restaurant were to open at 100% capacity. But if it can’t hire more staff over the next several weeks, it may have to continue to limit seating, he said.
Still, things seem to be improving.
“I hired three people [last week],” he said. “It seems like it’s kind of breaking loose a bit and kind of getting better.”
Kas, who worked as an employee in the restaurant industry for 35 years, said he supports higher wages for employees — especially kitchen staff who may not receive tips on top of an hourly wage as servers do.
He said he is sympathetic to those who are not returning to work right away and continue to receive unemployment benefits.
“If it was me and I was getting $1,200 to stay home and $800 to go to work in a hot kitchen, I would probably take the $1,200, too,” he said.
As restaurants face higher labor costs, he said, customers should expect food prices to go up, too.
Kas said he is grateful for the employees who do choose to come work at his restaurants.
“Everything we do is relying on them and I want to applaud them for it,” he said.