Local eateries facing staffing difficulties

Restaurants around the country, including Bell County, are experiencing some issues with staffing as the pandemic subsides. – Photo by Joe Asher

Many are looking forward to summer with the pandemic easing up, allowing restaurants and other businesses to get closer to their normal capacity and service levels. However, some local restaurants are finding staff a little harder to come by than before the pandemic hit a little over a year ago.

Papa John’s franchisee John D. Brock Jr. of Willis and Brock Foods Inc., said once the pandemic arrived, many factors impacted the industry.

“Once it hit, you had restrictions in place, closures of restaurants, and limited hours across the board,” Brock said.

Brock pointed out much of his restaurant’s workforce was between the ages of 16 and 20.

“They became a little leery of being out in the general public, and parents were leery of having their kids out working because we were in the middle of a crisis…and I think that played a lot into as to why once it hit, the workforce changed quite a bit,” Brock said.” Those young people were not available.”

Brock confirmed finding delivery drivers is proving to be difficult at this time.

“We can hire drivers today,” Brock said. “Just see the general manager in Middlesboro and he will be more than happy to take the application for driver or inside help. We’ve changed pay rates; we feel like our pay rates have become very competitive.”

Brock said pay for entry-level workers is averaging from $9 to $12 per hour and delivery drivers can earn from $7.75 to over $15 per hour depending on tips and mileage.

“Hopefully we can all get through this and we can get things back to normal,” Brock said.

Danny Foust, general manager of Sagebrush Steakhouse in Middlesboro, discussed some challenges being faced at his restaurant.

“I think just about every business in the United States is having the same problem,” he said. “Everybody is hiring because, to be quite honest, nobody really wants to go back to work right now.”

According to Foust, it may be the current enhanced amount of unemployment compensation that is part of the problem.

“Nobody really wants to go out and look for a job,” he said. “They’ll go and put in two or three applications a week…but they’re not actively looking for a job, because when you call and offer them a job they never show up and go to work.”

Foust said prior to the pandemic, the restaurant was fully staffed, and sales were growing.

“Things were looking good,” Foust said. “Since COVID-19 and people drawing unemployment, we’ve had to cut our hours back.”

Foust said Sagebrush Steakhouse will be cutting hours beginning next week because of the staffing issues.

“We’re going to start closing two days a week just so the staff we do have aren’t working seven days a week,” he said.

Sagebrush Steakhouse will be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Foust added the establishment ideally would employ between 50 and 55 people, but currently employs less than half that number.

“Right now, I have 15 (staff members),” he said.

Foust explained he would need to have approximately 30 employees to open full-time.

He said anybody interested in working at Sagebrush should go on Jobalign.com and apply.

“I have adjusted pay to be what I feel to be one of the higher paid restaurants around,” Foust said. “I start people off in the kitchen at $11 an hour and up to $15 an hour.”

Foust said servers are starting out at $3 to $4 per hour, plus tips.