Customer service suffers at understaffed restaurants as Covid takes lives

Customer service suffers at understaffed restaurants as Covid takes lives
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A waiter works at a restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, on June 3, 2022.

Olivier Douliery | AFP | Getty Pictures

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

“Another restaurant we went to had outdoor seats, but when we went to the host they said the kitchen was understaffed,” Rothenberg, director of operations at a California-based fintech firm, told CNBC. “So even though there is seating, it would put us on a 30-minute waiting list to be seated.”

Rothenberg said he was on the 30-minute waiting list for about an hour. Then after being seated she waited another 45 minutes for her food to arrive.

“It was the kind of experience that made me not want to eat out,” he said. “I pity the servers because they’re trying, but because they don’t have enough cooks, they can only do so much.”

This is a recurring scenario in the food service industry since the Covid pandemic began in 2020, and it’s hurting restaurants and their staff as well.

The quarantines in the spring of that year led to layoffs and layoffs for many cooks and waiters, and led the federal government to subsidize billions of dollars in donated loans for small businesses. The disease has devastated the US workforce, killing more than a million people over two years and making millions more sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Restaurant employment has improved as states relax their restrictions, but the industry still has 750,000 jobs — roughly 6.1% of the workforce — from pre-pandemic levels, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Customers notice the difference. In the first quarter of 2022, customers mentioned short staff three times more. Bark Reviews from the previous year, according to the restaurant review site. Those talking about long waits increased by 23%.

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

The American Customer Satisfaction Index found that consumers are less happy with fast-food chains this year than they were in 2021 – the industry score dropped from 78 to 76 out of 100. Customers were less satisfied with the speed and accuracy of their orders and the accuracy of their orders. cleanliness and order of the restaurant.

According to ACSI’s annual report, customer satisfaction scores for independent and small chain restaurants have also dropped from 81 to 80 out of 100 this year. Some national full-service chains have seen their ratings drop further from year to year: Food Brands Apple bees fell 5%, Darden Restaurants‘Olive Garden 4% and Inspire Brands’ Buffalo Wild Wings 3%.

‘Everything is very strange’

Eatontown resident Theresa Berweiler said she has consistently encountered early closures and long wait times over the past year, even when restaurants are not busy.

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

Restaurants aren’t the only businesses to see workforce shortages hit customer service. According to the Department of Transportation, consumer complaints against US airlines rose more than four times in April from pre-pandemic levels. hotelier Hilton Worldwide CEO Christopher Nassetta said in the company’s quarterly earnings call in May that he was not satisfied with his own customer service and needed more workers.

Staff shortages for restaurants have put pressure on an industry already battling inflation and recuperating sales lost due to the pandemic. Alexandria Restaurant PartnersA group that owns and operates eight restaurants in Florida and Northern Virginia has dramatically changed the way it does business.

“We’re not sure where the entire workforce went, but many have disappeared, from managers to chefs to watchmakers,” said Dave Nicholas, a founding member of ARP.

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

Source: Alexandria Restaurant Partners

Now, Nicholas said, his focus is on recruiting and retention. The group has opened a recruiting position and now has two full-time recruiters working to bring much-needed employees into jobs with higher wages and better benefits that the group has never had.

“Previously you could hire them as fast as you needed. That’s not the case these days,” Nicholas said. “Our mission is to be the employer of choice. This comes with benefits we may not have had before, from servers to busboys to dishwashers. The cost was huge, but the turnover cost is huge, so we weighed it. IT.”

But not all workers take home more wages, even if their basic wages have increased. Frustration with understaffing often results in lower tips for workers, said Saru Jayaraman, director of the Center for Food Labor Research at the University of California, Berkeley, and president of One Fair Wage, who advocates tipping. In turn, lower pay exacerbates the problem by causing many restaurant workers to quit.

“It’s a vicious cycle of being unhappy with service that can tip less, then not returning and sales plummeting,” he said.

The restaurant industry has historically struggled with high turnover. The problem only intensified during the Covid pandemic as workers sought better pay and working conditions, worried about getting sick and struggling to find childcare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the accommodation and food service industries had a 5.7% dropout rate in May.

In addition to the ARP’s recent layoffs bonuses and partner programs, higher wages and better fringe benefits, tackling the labor market is a “battle”, Nicholas said.

Full-service restaurants were hit harder than limited-service restaurants, with staff shortages down 11% from pre-pandemic levels.

This means that the dining out experience will likely no longer be the same.

“Going to a restaurant and having them get them some buttered bread,” said Nicholas Harary, owner of Barrel & Roost, a restaurant in Red Bank, New Jersey, “gone those days.”

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