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Staffing, inflation prove challenging for restaurants

Restaurant table
David Arpi https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode
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The restaurant business runs in Angie Keefner's family. Her father was the owner of Bachmann and Keefner, a pharmacy and lunch counter that was a staple in downtown Springfield for decades.

Seven years ago, Angie opened Keefner’s, with recipes and items from her father’s business, in a strip mall along Iles Avenue and Chatham Road.

She was able to keep it going during the pandemic shutdown. But then the price of food began going way up, and so did the cost of staffing.

“I went from paying some people 14 dollars an hour, all the way up to 16 to 17 dollars an hour, because the competition out there was willing to pay them that much," she said. "Eventually, you know, minimum wage is going to be 15 dollars an hour. You can't pay your cook 15 dollars and pay your dishwasher the same because they have different responsibilities.”

Angie Keefner
Angie Keefner
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Angie Keefner in her former restaurant

Angie had to make a tough decision, and this summer she closed the doors. She says she was grateful to have had good staff, but thinks many other restaurants aren’t so lucky.

“The main problem with any restaurant is... not just getting staff, but getting good staff that actually care. And they actually have good work ethics and show up to work every day." she said. "And in order to have great service and great food, you have to hire the best. And I did have a really good staff. I just couldn't afford them."

It’s a familiar story Same Toya has been hearing. He’s the president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, which represents establishments in the state. He said challenges include: two plus years of debt, higher food costs, supply issues and staffing.

“We also know the majority of Illinois operatives say their costs are higher now than they were before the pandemic. In fact, 92 percent say their total food and beverage costs are higher than in 2019, and 94 percent say their total labor costs are higher." Toya said.

Restaurants are among the most reviewed businesses online. A bad experience, such as long wait times or poor service, can impact the bottom line. Toya said a lot of restaurants have been forced to alter their schedules when they can't find enough people to work shifts.

“A lot of restaurants that used to stay open to 11 p.m. are closing at nine. Restaurants that stayed open until midnight are closing at ten. So, they’re reducing their hours, which then reduces their gross sales which then reduces their bottom-line profit.”

Toya said more than 40% of restaurant owners say the business conditions are worse than three months ago and a majority are pessimistic things will change soon.

Still, there are those who are undeterred. Dustin Coons is a new owner, but experienced in the restaurant industry. He launched Legacy Pointe Eatery in Springfield in September. Having spent years as a chef, he decided to take the plunge.

Dustin Coons
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Dustin Coons, owner of Legacy Pointe Eatery

“It's every chef's dream to own their own space, and I’d come across an opportunity to rent a space that was mostly turnkey. So this was kind of set up and seemed like a perfect opportunity for me. So I seized it,” he said.

But why now, with so many headwinds?

“I hate to answer you with a quote from something else. But a song lyric says what better place than here? What better time than now?" he said.

"You know, it's personal reasons, mostly. I'm as old as I've ever been, and as young as I'll ever be again. Gonna give it a shot. I'm not going to wake up one day too old to do it and wonder what if I had done it. The economy is ever changing, and if you sit around and wait until there's a perfect time, you'll find yourself waiting forever. There's never a perfect time for anything. You've just gotta kind of jump in there and do it.”

Still, finding and keeping help is a challenge. One survey showed restaurant turnover at about 140%. Many restaurant workers say they view the jobs as stepping stones instead of careers.

Coons said there has definitely been a shift in mindset, and that workers are less likely to go above and beyond for their employer when they know other restaurants are eager to hire.

“I think a lot of what has changed from the pandemic is the fear of being jobless is gone from people. Years ago, I remember beginning one of the other restaurants, and we had like a line of employees waiting to come in."

"If one of the employees wasn't working out, we politely let them go. And we had someone very quickly to fill their space. However, what we're seeing these days is people being more selective about where they work,” he said.