ORCAS ISLAND — During the peak of this summer’s tourist season, Orcas Island seemed to attract just about everyone — except the workers who make it run.
Posted on the entrance of Enzo’s Caffe and Gelateria in downtown: “Our summer staff is going back to school! With the island labor shortage, we’ve been unable fill those positions. As such, we’ve made the difficult decision to [be] closed on Fridays.”
Across the street: “Due to the current labor shortage Pizzeria Portofino is only able to offer takeout service at this time. Thank you for your understanding.”
Nearby, the sign posted at Hogstone’s Wood Oven restaurant, about 90 minutes after it opened for takeout with a skeleton crew, read “sold out.”
One exasperated visitor, after wandering around Main Street, turned to his wife and kids and asked, “Where the hell are we gonna eat now?”
For a classic Pacific Northwest tourist town that has always been a hot ticket in the summer, the pandemic-induced travel fervor has complicated life for restaurateurs who face a shortage of both labor and affordable housing. These restaurant owners have been able to find workers off the island. They just can’t find anywhere to put them up. Worse, even as we approach Labor Day, which usually marks the end of tourist season in the San Juans, the tourist surge shows no sign of slowing. Despite a statewide spike in coronavirus infections and cuts in frequency of ferry service to the San Juan Islands, hotel rooms are filling up fast in October, a month that’s usually a slow period.
Worker shortage meets tourist season for the ages
Just as in Telluride, Colorado, and other resort towns, the lack of affordable housing on Orcas Island — Oprah Winfrey recently sold her estate on the island for $14 million — means restaurants have had to cut lunch or dinner service and cap the number of customers in dining rooms so their understaffed crew can keep up with orders.
The flood of tourists is unusual. According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, this year’s monthly ridership on the main ferry route from Anacortes to Orcas Island, when looked at year over year, has, in some months surpassed ridership numbers from 2019. And that’s with one fewer ferry in service.
Lance Evans, executive director of the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce for 15 years, said he has never seen this much tourist traffic and doesn’t foresee it tapering off since most hotels and other lodging have been booked far beyond Labor Day this year.
An informal Seattle Times survey of 10 bed-and-breakfast inns and hotels on Orcas Island showed that 90% of rooms have already been reserved through mid-October.
At Moran State Park and Mount Constitution, the top tourist attraction on the island, park rangers report that the number of day park users increased 15% from May to July (the latest figure available) compared with the same period before the pandemic. All campsites are booked through Labor Day weekend and also filling up for the rest of October at a faster rate than in the past, park rangers reported.
One camper, Michelle Roberts of Edmonds, says that in the 25 years that she has frequented the San Juan Islands, she has never experienced a labor shortage this bad.
“There were fewer restaurants [open]. Meals took longer to be served. There were dirty tables,” Roberts said, adding that servers “couldn’t seat customers. They were so understaffed, they couldn’t get to everybody. They were stressed out, they were so overworked.”
The restaurants are indeed struggling under the strain. At times, the owners of Matia Kitchen & Bar in Eastsound felt like the entire fleet of tourists had descended upon their dining room.
Drew Downing and Avery Adams, alums of the nationally acclaimed Hogstone’s Wood Oven restaurant, and two other co-owners, launched their farm-focused Matia Kitchen & Bar in May.
Their dining scene was hectic but got more frantic after New York Times food columnist J. Kenji López-Alt dined at the restaurant in June and tapped this shoutout to his 400,000 followers on Instagram: “This is the best, most exciting restaurant I’ve been to in at least a decade or longer. I can’t remember being so blown away by the food and wine program … Local food and casual dining at its finest.”
After that rave, Matia’s reservation line crashed overnight, overloaded by 200 voicemails. About 40 people filled the parking lot the next morning to get a jump on the lunch line. This became Matia’s Groundhog Day. The constant ringing of the phone could have doubled for the background music during service.
Of course the buzz came at a time when Matia was short two cooks, two dishwashers, two bussers and a host. Co-owner Downing filled in on many of those roles. His staff scrambled and sweated during lunch and dinner service.
“I was in a freefall. For the first time, I lost control of my restaurant,” Downing said.
“People say this is a good problem to have. [But] if guests have to wait for their food, that’s not a good problem for them. And that makes it a problem for us.”
Downing took out 30 of the 90 restaurant seats and turned away diners to slow the pace.
“Of course you lose money,” by taking tables away, he said. But “this is not a cash grab. I’m not going to sacrifice the customer experience for the bottom line. We are not Red Lobster.”
Both Matia and Hogstone’s share a server who recently handed in her notice and is moving to London. Because neither restaurant can replace her, Hogstone’s will likely just offer takeout going forward, while Matia will shut down its lunch service on weekdays, management at both restaurants said.
No housing, no workers
Orcas isn’t immune to the labor shortage that has plagued Seattle and other metropolitan areas. But in years past, Orcas restaurateurs could always eke out a kitchen staff with the sales pitch of an island paradise and the lure of $350 in tips on nights during tourist season. This year, many restaurateurs said they had lined up cooks and servers from around Washington and Oregon only to lose them because of “no vacancy” signs on the island.
The crisis is so dire that Downing gave up his two-bedroom apartment to two new employees while he lived out of his car for a while, just so he would have enough staffing to open this summer.
“I needed employees more than I needed a house. That decision seems like a no-brainer,” Downing said.
Other restaurant owners have relied on out of town friends and relatives to work in their kitchens and then crash on their couches or spare beds at night.
To hear the restaurant owners and workers tell it, trying to score a one-bedroom rental on the island for under $2,000 a month is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
One factor often cited by workers is the rise of short-term rentals such as Airbnb and Vrbo, and landlords who focus on that revenue stream rather than leases to families.
Landlords can make more in a week by renting to tourists than they would make in a month renting to locals. According to AirDNA, a research firm that tracks vacation rentals, the average cost to rent a vacation home on Orcas Island runs $410 a night in July.
This summer, after a contentious debate, the San Juan County Council voted unanimously to extend its moratorium on new short-term rentals on the San Juan Islands, essentially capping the current number of short-term rental permits to about 500 on Orcas.
There were other relief efforts. Last year, 45 affordable apartment units were erected on Orcas, but those quickly got snatched up after almost 250 people applied, according to the OPAL Community Land Trust.
For the local restaurant industry, the staggering number of low-income applicants underscores the disparity of many resort towns that rely on the hospitality workforce to keep their tourism engine humming, but don’t provide those workers with affordable housing.
Some local restaurateurs are taking matters into their own hands by building lodging for their staff.
The island’s next big opening is the wine bar Roots Orcas Island under owners Cole Sisson and Shea Sasan. Sisson was a sommelier at the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas and the late RN74 in Seattle.
The wine bar — still under construction, though visitors can grab espresso there — has not faced staffing challenges because the owners have plopped down a trailer and mother-in-law unit to house their own workforce, and have plans to buy another property to lease to their employees.
“If you can secure housing, you are in a really strong position” as a restaurant owner here, said Sisson. “You can bring people up from all over because Orcas is a very desirable place to live.”
Sisson is working with Washington State University to recruit graduates in the hospitality fields to take on paid yearlong internships with lodging provided. He’s also planning to provide housing for experienced employees such as sommeliers and managers.
Many small business owners, though, don’t have the capital to house their employees.
But Blackinton, chef and owner of Hogstone’s, worries there might be no other option if restaurants are to survive on Orcas. The James Beard-nominated chef shut down his restaurant Ælder and pared down the menu of Hogstone’s partly because he couldn’t secure housing for three cooks from Oregon who wanted to work in his kitchen.
To survive in the future, Blackinton reckons he needs to build three to four sleeping quarters next to his restaurant. “Where am I going to find money to do that? I don’t know.”
Other restaurant owners have also started staff housing projects in various stages. Two owners built mother-in-law units in their backyards for their line cooks. Another ambitious project is Mijitas Mexican Kitchen, which is applying for a permit to build a housing unit behind its restaurant in downtown.
Matia may also look to buy a property to house future employees if the labor and housing shortage continues. “I’ve never owned my own house. And the first house I buy might be to [be used as] staff housing,” co-owner Downing said laughing. “That’s the nature of the beast here.”