A 'Help Wanted' sign hangs outside Oswald Restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz.
A ‘Help Wanted’ sign hangs outside Oswald Restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Restaurants & Dining

‘Stressed out’: As the available pool of workers remains low, restaurants keep laboring to stay afloat

A month after California’s grand June 15 re-opening, help wanted signs seemingly outnumber available workers. Local businesses continue to see a surge of patrons, yet with the workforce missing in action — either still collecting unemployment or having moved on — owners are left scrambling, many forced to reduce their hours of operation.

It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Friday and Damani Thomas paces in between a line of five saute pans inside Oswald in Santa Cruz. You can hear a concert of crackles as each piece of chicken chars in its respective pan.

Thomas, donned in a Mountain Feed Farm & Supply hat and Nike hoodie, leans over the kitchen pass, his elbows just a few inches away from a bowl of apricots he picked from his yard earlier this morning. There’s an earnestness in his voice.

“I’ll cook, I’ll do dishes. I’ll do everything I need to keep my business alive,” he said.

Thomas, who opened Oswald in 1995, is one of several restaurant owners who are looking — scratch that, still looking — for help.

A month after California’s grand re-opening, help wanted signs seemingly outnumber available workers. Local businesses continue to see a surge of patrons, yet with the workforce MIA, owners are left scrambling, many forced to reduce their hours of operation.

A 'Help Wanted' sign hangs outside Oswald Restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz.
A ‘Help Wanted’ sign hangs outside Oswald Restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Is affordability, work ethic or wages the problem?

Oswald has about 15 to 20 employees, though fully staffed the restaurant would employ 30 individuals. Friday morning, Thomas and one of his prep chefs worked diligently to prepare the restaurant for its lunch service. For Thomas, it’s the beginning stages of a 16-hour marathon shift — one that’s become part of his Friday and Saturday routines.

As chef and owner, Thomas would be present at the restaurant regardless, but like many in the industry, the current employment crisis has forced many to find new reserves of energy.

“I’m afraid there’s going to be a point, it’s going to be too much,” he said.

Between no-shows and an apparent lack of interest with unemployment benefits still available, the employment pool for hospitality is mirroring California’s historic drought conditions.

“If you were smart they would just line up with a job now,” Thomas said. “Once benefits run out and they’ve exhausted all of their avenues it’s gonna be a big push for people trying to get back into the service industry.”

Unemployment though isn’t the root cause in Thomas’ eyes. The exorbitant cost of living in Santa Cruz may be the main culprit.

“People just can’t really afford to work a service job when you know buying a house is impossible,” he said. “And now we’re getting to the point where renting is almost impossible.”

From February 2020 to April 2021, the hospitality and leisure industry lost 17% of its workforce, according to data from the Department of Labor and Statistics. In June, the average hourly wage for industry workers was at $18.23, which totals less than $38,000 annually.

It’s a paradoxical problem for the industry because the apparent easy fix — increasing wages — may not be so simple because it would result in higher price points on menus.

“You’re going to price yourself out,” Thomas said.

The kitchen at Alderwood.
(Via Alderwood)

Some staff are gone for good

At the nearby Alderwood, it’s the same problem. Customer flow has been steady but maintaining a full staff has been troublesome.

Alderwood general manager Ivan Diaz said the restaurant has been fortunate to maintain its front-of-house staff, but back-of-house has been a different story.

“A lot of people think it’s not a career, it’s just a job,” he said. That stigma around hospitality has historically been a thorn in the industry’s side, however, university towns like Santa Cruz have largely gotten around it with the help of students in need of extra cash.

With fewer college-aged students in town and ongoing unemployment extensions, the staffing pool remains stagnant.

“It’s a career for some and you can make a career out of it but a lot of our workforce is transient,” California Restaurant Association President Jot Condie said.

It’s a career for some and you can make a career out of it but a lot of our workforce is transient.

Condie acknowledges that for a majority of hospitality workers, specifically front-of-house (servers/bartenders), restaurants have always been alluring for “people who are trying to get through school” or looking to earn a decent living in-between college or careers.

That turnover has, and may always, exist. The larger issue is how many individuals have left with no intentions of returning.

“There are a lot of people who have taken time during the pandemic to figure out what they want to do,” Condie said.

Los Angeles
For the first time in over a year, Langer’s Delicatessen-Restaurant in L.A. preps food for in-person dining Tuesday. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Condie said there has been a slight overemphasis on unemployment benefits being the root cause. With the shuffle between re-openings and shutdowns, employees realized they couldn’t count on the industry. Many have moved on to construction or other professions, he said.

“They’re gone permanently,” Condie said.

For Alderwood, the result has been a large influx of cross-training for current staff. Diaz said he has taken over more quality control duties, chefs are rotating stations with greater frequency and servers and bartenders are taking turns helping with food prep.

“It’s been all hands on deck,” he said.

Inside the kitchen at Alderwood in Santa Cruz on Friday, June 16, 2021.
Inside the kitchen at Alderwood in Santa Cruz on Friday, June 16, 2021.
(Neil Strebig / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Additionally, Diaz said the supply chain has created a two-front battle for the restaurant. With a tequila shortage, increased prices for tables, chairs and outdoor heaters, there’s less wiggle room despite the increase in business.

Federal funding provides relief, not respite

For some local businesses, grants provided a solution. Recently, more than 100 businesses throughout the county were awarded Restaurant Revitalization Fund grants, Alderwood among the recipients.

RRF recipients Gayle’s Bakery in Capitola and Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing Co. were awarded $2.7 million and $162,356.96, respectively. Owners at both identities said the funds were going to be used primarily for wages and payroll.

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Thomas, who applied for an earlier round of Payroll Protection Program (PPP) funding, said the grant funding has been helpful, but it’s also been burdensome for many. The application process is confusing and cumbersome, he said. He added that unless you’re aware of where to go or where to look, you wouldn’t know where to begin the application.

“I think a lot of people got lost in the cracks just because of how hard the application processes were,” he said. “And if someone is trying to cook, keep [the] business alive and all that. Where does the energy come from for that? Where does the time come from?”

Damani Thomas will keep fighting to keep his restaurant alive.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It was a laborious process,” Condie said regarding RRF applications. Condie said that for the restaurants that completed the process and received funding the benefit was substantial and “ensured their survival.”

“For the ones who didn’t, they’re still on the ropes,” he said. Condie estimates that another $50 billion is needed in the form of a Restaurant Revitalization Fund second round.

“Restaurants may be filled but it’s going to take years for them to dig out of debt they’ve incurred,” he said, adding that it will take time, likely years, for the industry as a whole to bounce back to any sense of pre-pandemic stability.

Time, though, seems to be the one thing moving in slow motion for hospitality.

A wait for customers & a weight for staff

Despite a year and half of uncertainties, the community remains a key part of Thomas’ optimism.

He recalls the GoFundMe that helped keep his business afloat last year. At breaking point amidst the pandemic where he felt “hopeless” and “unsure” of what to do, he launched the campaign. The outpour of community support provided him — and in many ways, still is providing — a second wind.

“It gave me hope and energy,” he said. For now, he’s asking customers to continue supporting restaurants and to be mindful of what the industry is going through at this point in history.

“Be patient. The staff of these restaurants is stressed out. We’re unsure if we’re going to make it and that weighs on everyone,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Damani Thomas’ first name as Damini.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Oswald Restaurant as Oswald’s.