Amanda Franks poses for a photo outside Rocky's Cafe in Felton on Monday, June 7.
Amanda Franks poses for a photo outside Rocky’s Cafe in Felton on Monday. Franks is one of two servers on staff at the moment. “No one has been coming in [looking for work],” she said.
(Neil Strebig / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Business & Technology

Business is back, staff isn’t: Santa Cruz businesses navigate worker shortages ahead of June 15 reopening

“Help wanted” signs have become the unofficial calling card for businesses in 2021. Here’s how some local eateries and other outfits are managing the hiring shortage.

A quick drive up Highway 9 reveals a caravan of parked cars outside Rocky’s Cafe. The deck full of patrons would suggest business is back — and in many ways it is.

But the staff isn’t.

“No one has been coming in [looking for work],” Amanda Franks said.

Franks, who has been working at Rocky’s Cafe in Felton for the past 14 years, said for a large portion of the COVID-19 shutdown she was the lone server at the diner. Now, the core of the staff is tripled: Franks, a busboy and Christine Patracoula, another veteran who has been with the restaurant for 22 years. The trio is there six days a week, she said.

“It’s hard because we’re tired,” Patracoula said, adding that with one cook right now the owners have been periodically dropping in behind the line to help. At full staff, the restaurant has three servers, two cooks, a prep cook, steward and two bussers.

“It’s hard on the business because people suffer, customers suffer,” she said.

According to a Santa Cruz County state of the workforce report, the tourism and hospitality industry saw an 80% job loss the past year — the largest employment decrease of any employment sector.

As June 15 approaches and the floodgates for summer consumers reopens, Santa Cruz County businesses are about to see if they can handle the surge.

A now hiring sign hangs outside the entrance of Parish Publick House in Aptos on Tuesday.
A now hiring sign hangs outside the entrance of Parish Publick House in Aptos on Tuesday.
(Neil Strebig / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Help wanted

Last year, mask reminders were a sign of the times; now “help wanted” signs have become the 2021 message of choice.

A 2021 National Restaurant Association state of the industry report highlighted that 90% of food-service operators reported staffing below pre-coronavirus levels.

”The past couple months we’ve only had maybe 10 resumes — it’s been really challenging,” said Sheon Mika, floor manager at Akira Sushi in Aptos.

Mika said business has been steady, but the restaurant has had trouble finding front-of-house help. This time of year is usually ripe for a few walk-in applications weekly, but right now there’s an absence of applicants.

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As the calendar hits June 15 on Tuesday, restaurants can expect crowds to keep coming, and maybe growing. But what does that mean for the industry?

“I’m not sure if I should or shouldn’t get excited,” Heavenly Roadside Cafe owner Danny Voutos said. The Scotts Valley restaurant survived last year largely due to local support, but as the weekend crowds return, the restaurant doesn’t have enough staff to keep up.

Heavenly Roadside Cafe owner Danny Voutos.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’ve never seen anything like this and it’s going to continue [for some time],” he said.

Part of the problem, Voutos believes, is a cultural one. “Professionally people don’t take it seriously,” Voutos said regarding hospitality. Often it’s viewed as a stopgap, serving only as a short-term gig for college-aged students, he said.

That perception, though, might very well be a symptom of the current staffing epidemic.

Adair Paterno and Tim Clifford, owners of Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, have made it a point to offer fair wages and benefits to their staff. The result has been a unique level of retention, with several bartenders remaining with them for nearly a decade.

Paterno said they have able to retain all of their benefited, full-time staff since the pandemic began, despite the fact they closed down both of their on-site locations completely and turned exclusively to canning. Their popular midtown Portal location, which included a kitchen managed by former Companion baker Chris Pester, became a full-time canning facility — with a busy part-time to-go window.

The brewery committed to a full kitchen expansion and will bring in Pizza Pals, an operation run by friends who formerly worked at Assembly and Bad Animal. That meant Pester, a full-time benefited employee, needed another focus beyond making the pizza- and pretzel-making that will be passed along to Pizza Pals.

So Pester found himself learning how to drive a forklift, how to help with the canning operation and, most recently, how to brew SARA’s renowned dank IPAs and delicate, barrel-aged saisons.

“That crossover between baker and brewer really came in handy,” Paterno said.

Sante Adairius partially reopened its Capitola location, with a new patio area, only a few weeks ago. It will need to spiff its can-littered Portal location back up while it finishes the kitchen overhaul. A mid-July reopening is anticipated.

Paterno said the pandemic silver lining for Sante Adairius has been the realization that it had built a small, hearty and versatile team — and one that repaid loyalty with adaptability.

“It forced us to cross-train a lot of people to do different things. We have a small staff but one that can do a whole bunch of stuff,” she said. “I had to get people forklift-certified, my kitchen guy was packing, and now he’s brewing. You really have to be able to jump in and help each other do anything.”

‘This year has been exponentially harder’

The shortage isn’t unique to local eateries. The Boardwalk, one of the county’s largest employers, has also been striking out on the hiring front.

“We deal with staffing shortages every year,” Boardwalk human relations director Sabra Reyes said. “This year has been exponentially harder.”

After being shut down for most of last year, the Boardwalk recently announced it would be operating seven days a week again. While the daily opening is a welcome sign of normalcy, the reality is that some rides, attractions and eateries might remain closed until there are enough employees to operate them.

The shortage has forced several managers to abandon their cubicle or home office and station themselves behind control panels for rides.

“A lot of us right now are doing three jobs,” Reyes said. The Boardwalk is nearing capacity with 39 rides now in operation, but some, such as the Logger’s Revenge, which requires four to six employees to operate, will remain closed.

Reyes said that the shutdown affected the hiring process. Historically, the Boardwalk begins hiring in the winter and has four to five months to prepare. With a staggered reopening schedule beginning in April, it had about three weeks to prepare this time, she said.

The joys of the Giant Dipper.
(Courtesy The Boardwalk)

The company is offering incentives for hiring, including an additional $300 biweekly for employees working 30 hours or more. The hiring perk has helped and several current employees have picked up more hours, but the Boardwalk is still largely below its usual workforce.

A normal summer would mean 1,900 employees. Right now the Boardwalk has about 900, she said. This includes a downturn in visiting employees via the company’s international exchange program. Usually, that brings in about 100 international employees; this year, due to COVID-19 restrictions and concerns, only 30.

“It feels like every employer in Santa Cruz is looking for help. We’re one of many,” Reyes said.

Boardwalk spokesperson Kris Reyes said the Boardwalk and surrounding beach area attracts about 3 million visitors annually.

While the direct economic impact from those visitors is unknown, tourism as a whole is a large portion of both Santa Cruz County’s workforce and its economy. In 2019, tourism was a $1.1 billion industry for the county, according to Visit Santa Cruz.

Tourism season is here, staff or no staff

Santa Cruz isn’t the only area navigating this national crisis. But stagnant employment numbers here create a bigger problem because the crowds are still coming.

To Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce CEO Casey Beyer, unemployment assistance has been the biggest hurdle for businesses to overcome.

“It was paying you more not to work than work,” he said. “The tourism economy is notorious for low-wage jobs.”

Historically, tipped-wage earners, often in tourism and hospitality, are among the lowest-earning. A 2018 study from the Economic Policy Institute reported that nearly 20% of servers and bartenders are living at or near the poverty level. According to the County’s state of the workforce report, the tourism, recreation and hospitality industry accounted for 14% of the county’s workforce and was identified as the sector with the lowest average earnings.

While Beyer acknowledged that the “tourism economy is still coming back,” the comfort level for travelers and consumers is still a factor to consider. Consumer habits have switched largely to online purchasing, and as event season and live concerts return, it is consumer comfort that is still an unknown variable.

“Will people come to the events, will they feel safe?” Beyer said.

At the moment, it seems people are coming. It’s the staff who are staying home.

Lookout’s Mark Conley contributed to this report.