Customer service suffers at short-staffed restaurants as Covid takes its toll

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A server works at a restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia on June 3, 2022.

Olivier Douliery | AFP | Getty Images

Jeff Rothenberg has grown accustomed to long wait times in restaurants, even when tables are visibly open.

“Another restaurant we went to had outdoor seating available, but when we went to the host, they mentioned the kitchen was understaffed,” Rothenberg, COO of CBS, told CNBC. a California-based fintech company. “So even though he had seats, he was going to put us on a 30-minute waiting list to be seated.”

Rothenberg was on the 30-minute wait list for almost an hour, he said. Then, after sitting down, he waited another 45 minutes for his food to arrive.

“It’s the kind of experience that makes me want to eat out less,” he said. “I felt bad for the waiters, because they were trying, but they couldn’t do much, not having enough cooks.”

This is a scenario that has repeated itself in the restaurant industry since the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020, and it is also weighing on restaurants and their staff.

Closures in the spring of that year led to layoffs and furloughs for many cooks and servers, prompting the federal government to back billions of dollars in forgivable loans for small businesses. The disease has ravaged the American workforce, killing more than a million people in more than two years while sickening several million more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As states loosen restrictions, restaurant employment has picked up, though the industry has still lost 750,000 jobs — about 6.1% of its workforce — from pre-COVID levels. pandemic in May, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Customers notice the difference. In the first quarter of 2022, diners mentioned staff shortages three times more often in their Yelp reviews than a year ago, according to the restaurant review site. Mentions of long waits increased by 23%.

“I think the experience has been different since Covid. I see the restaurant industry has changed a lot,” healthcare worker Nev Wright told CNBC outside Firebirds Wood Fired Grill in Eatontown, New Jersey. “It wasn’t always like this – now it takes time, with expense and staff shortages and everything.”

The US Customer Satisfaction Index found that consumers were less satisfied with fast food chains this year compared to 2021 – the industry score fell from 78 to 76 out of 100. Customers were less satisfied with the speed and the accuracy of their orders and the cleanliness and layout of the restaurant.

Customer satisfaction scores for independent restaurants and small chains also fell this year, from 81 to 80 out of 100, according to ACSI’s annual report. Some national full-service chains saw their scores drop even more year over year: Dine Brands’ Applebees fell 5%, Darden Restaurants’ Olive Garden fell 4%, and Inspire Brands’ Buffalo Wild Wings fell 3%. %.

“Everything is very weird”

Eatontown resident Theresa Berweiler said that over the past year she has routinely faced early closing times and long waits at restaurants, even when they are not busy.

“I’m 64 and I’ve never seen anything like it,” the receptionist told CNBC Wednesday outside a local Chick-fil-A. “It’s all very weird. Covid has definitely changed the world, and I’m not sure for the better.”

Restaurants aren’t the only businesses seeing labor shortages hit customer service. U.S. consumer complaints against airlines more than quadrupled from pre-pandemic levels in April, according to the Department of Transportation. Hotelier Hilton Worldwide is unhappy with its own customer service and needs more workers, CEO Christopher Nassetta said during the company’s quarterly earnings call in May.

For restaurants, staffing issues have put pressure on an industry already struggling with inflation and recovering sales lost to the pandemic. Alexandria Restaurant Partners, a group that owns and operates eight restaurants in Florida and Northern Virginia, has radically changed the way it does business.

“We don’t know where all the staff went, but a lot of them disappeared, from managers to chefs to schedules,” said ARP founding member Dave Nicholas.

A chef prepares food in the kitchens of Cafe Tu Tu Tango, a popular restaurant in Orlando, Florida.

Source: Alexandria Restaurant Partners

Now, Nicholas said, he is focused on hiring and retention. The group has opened a recruiting position and now has two full-time recruiters working to bring much-needed employees to jobs with higher salaries and better benefits than the group has ever had.

“Before, you could hire them as quickly as you needed. Now that’s not the case anymore,” Nicholas said. “Our mission is to be the employer of choice. This comes with benefits that we may not have had before, right down to servers, busboys and dishwashers. The cost of this has been Huge, but the rolling cost is huge, so we weighed that.”

But not all workers are earning more at home, even if their base salary has increased. Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley and president of One Fair Wage, which advocates the abandonment of tipped wages, said frustration with understaffing often results in lower tips for workers. In turn, lower wages cause many restaurant workers to quit, compounding the problem.

“It’s a vicious cycle where people are unhappy with service that may tip less, then they don’t come back and sales go down,” she said.

The restaurant industry has always struggled with high turnover. The problem has only intensified during the Covid pandemic as employees seek better pay and working conditions, fear getting sick and struggle to find childcare. The accommodation and food service industries had a quit rate of 5.7% in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nicholas said that despite ARP’s recent rollouts of retention bonuses and partner programs, in addition to higher salaries and better benefits, it’s been a “battle” to keep up with the job market.

Full-service restaurants have been hit harder than limited-service restaurants by the labor shortage, with staff numbers down 11% from pre-pandemic levels.

And that means the restaurant dining experience will likely never be the same.

“Going to a restaurant and having them bring bread with butter,” said Nicholas Harary, owner of Barrel & Roost, a restaurant in Red Bank, New Jersey, “those days are over.”

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