Recipe for the future: What will become of restaurant work?
The restaurant industry took a big hit during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more people go out to eat this summer, KLCC looks at what’s changed, maybe for the long term. This is the final installment in our series, “Workin’ It.”
In 2020, Cat Hernandez worked at Luckey’s in downtown Eugene. She was laid off when the pandemic shut down indoor service. “Oh, it was rough," she told KLCC. "It was really stressful honestly, just knowing that the bills are not going to stop, you know. Capitalism keeps going. You’re just trying to figure out what you’re going to do the next day.”
She had a couple years of uncertainty, taking short-term work.
Jason Brandt is CEO of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association. He said it’s been the perfect, bad weather storm. “We had a lot of people that have traditionally worked in our industry leave for good," he said. "So I think any job that included a lack of steady income to pay your normal household bills resulted in a historic shift in employment.”
Brandt said people either trained for a new job or retired. That’s made for an abundance of new workers who need training.
Katie Underhill has been at Northwest Burgers in Springfield’s Public House for about a month. She said, “It was very easy to find a job, yeah, I got hired very fast. I’ve always been working different kinds of jobs, and I’ve never worked a restaurant job before, so I wanted to start something different. I love it. It’s very fast paced here and keeps me busy.”
Underhill could choose a location close to home because of low unemployment rates. Jason Brandt agrees employees have the edge. He said, “There’s an incredible, cutthroat, fierce competition across industry sectors for workers.”
At Mezza Luna Pizzeria in Springfield, co-owner John Fitzgerald feels that pressure. He told KLCC, “This is a very, very weird time. I’ve been doing this for about 32 years, and I’ve never seen where a restaurant is busy as heck, and can’t stay open because we don’t have anybody to serve people.”
Fitzgerald said business is booming. They did well the past two years with to-go orders, but have had to close some days and hours lately due to lack of staff.
Then there’s expenses. Brandt said basic costs of food and supplies have risen an average of 18 percent year-over-year, the biggest hike in 50 years. Fitzgerald knows first-hand. “It’s been insane," he admitted.
"Our cheese price went up 30 percent in the last couple months. Our meat prices are going up. I mean, we’re trying to fight the good fight and not raise prices, and we’ve only raised our prices once in the last two and a half years.”
Fitzgerald said there’s not much they can do to cut costs. Any automation in making pizza, he said, takes the life out of the food.
New owners, though, have the luxury of launching in a post-pandemic world. Lorraine and David Lehane own Drop Bear brewery, a new pub in South Eugene. David said, “We rewrote our business plan at the beginning of the pandemic because of the change in the way things were happening and we figured we had to get away from the traditional people-orientated business. We figured we’ll automate as much as we can.”
Drop Bear will have “house captains” as customer-facing staff and most ordering and payments will use a point of sale system at the tables. Jason Brant said those systems will probably grow. “I think over the course of the next decade," he said, "we’ll continue to see more restaurant operations shift to counter service models and using systems where things are automated in the front of the house, but not in a way that necessarily impacts the quality of the food product.”
David Lehane said they also want to take care of their employee team, noting, “We always intended to pay our people a fair wage. As we grow we want to provide benefits for our people and we want to promote 401K, because we’re huge believers in if you don’t plan for the future, when you get to the end, you’re in a lot of trouble.”
Lehane said they know it will be hard to find steady employees but they already have a couple. Cat Hernandez is one. “Luckily with them," she said, "they are going to be paying me a livable wage. But I know a lot of people who are still in the industry, and things are only getting rougher and they’re still getting paid minimum wage, and people won’t tip and stuff like that.”
The costs of running a restaurant are tricky, said Brandt. “The average margin is three to five cents on every dollar of sales in a restaurant" he said. "If you think about it in that way, it’s one of the most altruistic pursuits, I think, that exists in the country.”
There are creative solutions he thinks will grow, such as selling sauces or other food items in grocery stores. Brandt said people will always eat out, and restaurants are America’s training ground for essential skills. As to what restaurant workers should do if they feel trapped, Cat Hernandez had a thought: “I say unionize. Talk to each other, talk about what your wages are. Let the community know, let people know this is how you’re being treated and it’s not okay. Get together and form your groups … and stand up, speak up. Don’t let people, especially people in power, keep pushing you down.”
Funding for KLCC's Workin' It series comes from the University of Oregon's Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics.