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Chicago restaurants struggle to staff up, even after the state reopens

Chicago restaurants are struggling to reopen, even after the state of Illinois reopened the to 100% after COVID 19 (Getty Images){ }
Chicago restaurants are struggling to reopen, even after the state of Illinois reopened the to 100% after COVID 19 (Getty Images)
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CHICAGO (SBG) -- Illinois reopened at full capacity last month, but service and retail industry providers are finding it hard to accommodate so many guests at once. Restaurants and other businesses in the Chicagoland area are short-staffed, and hiring has become increasingly difficult.

The labor shortage is most often attributed to the enhanced unemployment benefits that many Illinoisans are receiving due to Covid-19. Those on unemployment can receive an extra $300 weekly, an attempt to aid workers who suffered financially during the pandemic. The benefits are set to expire in early September, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker has shown no intention of removing them sooner.

This financial cushion is also considered by many to be an incentive to stay at home. Although some people are still concerned about returning to work for health reasons, others are hoping to reap the benefits of enhanced unemployment for as long as possible.

“If they’re getting a pretty sizeable check that was at their lifestyle or above their lifestyle, I just don’t think there’s a lot of motivation to go and get a job until that ends so that’s what we’re dealing with right now,” said Dave Sloan, the former CEO and co-founder of Naf Naf Grill.

Sloan has years of experience in the restaurant industry. He grew Naf Naf Grill to nearly 40 restaurants across the country and later sold it to a private equity group. He then started a restaurant group, Venture Kitchen, in the Chicagoland area. Venture Kitchen works with different restaurant concepts in both downtown Chicago and the surrounding suburbs.

All but one of the restaurants shut down at the pandemic’s onset. Over 100 employees were affected because business was suddenly down nearly 90%. These employees, who rely on their restaurant jobs for their livelihoods, were in trouble financially.

“We are very heavy—a lot of our concepts are in the Chicago Loop—and of course, the Loop was devastated by Covid,” said Sloan. “I mean, basically that entire area of Chicago turned into a ghost town, and it happened almost overnight.”

Sloan said that the government was generous and gave restaurants enough money to pay some employees and keep some operations running, but that money could only support a small staff. Many employees left to file for unemployment.

Now, restaurants are back in business, but employees are still hard to come by. Hiring signs are visible in windows throughout the suburbs and city, often with incentives attached in the hopes that people will come back to work.

“It’s been the most difficult hiring that I’ve ever had in my entire career by far,” said Sloan.

Venture Kitchen has increased wages and put out ads, but people still aren’t interested. Due to the lack of staff members, some of the restaurants have had to close down for half or even full days when there aren’t enough employees to keep the restaurant running smoothly.

“We need to get people back to work, we need to get this economy going again and get things back to normal. I just think the enhanced unemployment is delaying that a little bit from a business perspective,” said Sloan.

Others in the restaurant industry attribute the hiring difficulties not only to unemployment benefits, but also to increased opportunities during the time off.

“I do agree that [unemployment] is a problem, but I don’t necessarily think it’s as big of a problem as what some other people may believe. I think it’s a combination of a lot of different things,” said Eddie Leenheer, a managing member at Azul, an upscale seafood restaurant in Chicago.

“The restaurant business, it’s typically a part-time job for a lot of people, so, I mean, your rock stars—I’d be silly to think that if they didn’t use this past year in an attempt to better themselves and, you know, follow their dream. A lot of people work part time in a restaurant while they’re learning, while they’re in school, while they’re putting business plans together to go off and do their own things. So, it wouldn’t surprise me that some of your better rock stars have chosen their full-time careers and during this time have veered away from needing or even wanting a part-time job,” Leenheer continued.

Although he applauds these other endeavors, Leenheer still suffers from a lack of staff at Azul.

Leenheer and his colleagues planned to remodel Azul when the pandemic began. Despite the difficulties associated with a remodel during the pandemic, such as lack of construction staff and longer wait times for project completion, Leenheer said that it was a better idea to come out of the pandemic with a new concept, rather than an old one in need of an upgrade.

The restaurant is decorated with bright colors, has a rooftop dining area and has great city views.

“The size of the venue is pretty expansive, roughly 6,000 square feet per floor. I do have an army, but I could easily double my staff today,” he said.

The rooftop dining is only open Thursday through Sunday, rather than seven days a week, primarily because there simply isn’t enough staff.

Azul also tries to limit reservations in the hopes of not overwhelming the staff they do have. Most employees are cross trained so that each person can perform a number of different tasks depending on what is needed on any given night.

Servers used to be responsible for a number of side tasks, such as clearing tables, answering phones and rolling silverware. Now, additional support staff ensures that servers and bartenders are focused only on service to the guests.

Like Venture Kitchen, Azul has had trouble hiring, despite hiring bonuses and weekly open calls.

Leenheer says that one of the newer programs implemented within the restaurant involves team leaders. He calls it a “pre-management program.”

Servers, bussers, bartenders and more have the opportunity to qualify for this position. They earn a little extra money, so it’s an incentive to keep the staff working hard. Leenheer said that morale can be low, sometimes even due to frustrated customers, so these team leaders are encouraged to boost morale and keep it consistent within the restaurant.

Azul and Venture Kitchen restaurants have had great business, despite being tight on staff, especially due to warmer weather and reduced restrictions.

Illinois is not the only state having this problem, though. Sloan said that he’s seen this problem across the country on recent travels. On a trip to Georgia, he said half of a restaurant was closed because they didn’t have enough wait staff to accommodate full capacity seating.

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“It’s affecting everyone across this country ... this is a time when we need people and we need to be able to employ people,” said Sloan.

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