Tony Kischner has been involved in the restaurant industry for over 50 years. But the conundrum he and his wife, Ann, are facing at Bridgewater Bistro is something they haven’t encountered.
With coroanvirus restrictions lifted and the bustle of summer tourism in Astoria, it may seem like restaurants have finally put the struggle of the pandemic behind them. Yet for many, a labor shortage and other lingering challenges have prevented a return to normalcy.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Tony Kischner said.
After Bridgewater lost staff in late spring for various reasons, the Kischners sought to replace them. They were surprised to come up empty. Not only were they unable to find experienced line cooks and servers, there was even a lack of applications from high school students interested in bussing and dishwasher jobs.
The interest they received for jobs that typically require experience came from people who had never worked in restaurants.
“It’s a hard enough business already dealing with the summer pressure,” Ann Kischner said.
Several restaurants on the North Coast are facing similar obstacles. Some have temporarily closed or reduced hours at a time when business could be booming. A few have taken to social media to vent with anecdotes about people who apply for jobs but do not show up for interviews or who accept jobs but fail to appear for shifts.
The Oregon Employment Department, in a special research report released last week, said the state lost 286,000 jobs and unemployment hit an all-time high of 13.2% within the first two months of the pandemic.
The state found that 48% of those initial job losses were in the leisure and hospitality sector, such as hotels, restaurants and bars, along with other services like barber shops and hair salons and private education.
‘It just wasn’t healthy for them’
Despite the economic blow of the pandemic, many people have not immediately returned to the workforce as jobs become available. While extended unemployment insurance has provided some cushion, workers have cited difficulties with child care, housing and family obligations. Some also used the time off to reevaluate whether they want to go back to the same type of work, especially lower-wage jobs.
In July, the minimum wage in Clatsop County increased to $12.75 an hour — up from $12. Many restaurants have raised hourly pay and provided other incentives to help fill jobs but are still having trouble finding staff.
At Bridgewater Bistro, June was the busiest month since the restaurant opened in Uniontown in 2007, Ann Kischner said. “It’s busy all day and every day,” she said.
At that point, they began to worry for the well-being of their employees. “I saw them and realized, ‘You don’t even have time to visit your mom,’” she said. “It just wasn’t healthy for them.”
So Bridgewater decided to make some schedule adjustments. The restaurant closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. They also shut down between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. on other days to give staff a chance to transition between lunch and dinner.
Even though virus restrictions have been lifted, the restaurant has kept seating at 50% capacity.
“Why add tables to stress our employees out more?” Tony Kischner said. “I’m going to continue to protect my staff and keep them from getting sick and overwhelmed.”
In May, T. Paul’s Urban Cafe announced they would temporarily close downtown. T. Paul’s Supper Club, their other restaurant, also juggled hours. According to a sign out front on 12th Street, the restaurant is hiring for all positions, both full and part time.
Geno’s Pizza and Burgers announced during the spring that they would be closed on Tuesdays until they are able to find more staff. They shut down early and closed entirely on numerous days in June. A “help wanted” sign sits in their window in Uppertown.
Street 14 Cafe is closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. They were recruiting a new kitchen manager and chef on social media in June.
“We’re all in the same boat,” Ann Kischner said. “That’s comforting to know.”
‘People are disappointed and even occasionally angry’
The disruption has caused some negative reaction from customers who were eager to have the virus restrictions lifted.
“People are disappointed and even occasionally angry,” Ann Kischner said.
But she tries to be understanding as people readjust to life.
“It’s just a stressful time for everyone,” she said. “People have a certain level of tension in their life. We all do. So we tell servers to expect that and to be patient with people.”
In the meantime, Bridgewater Bistro will continue looking for staff.
“When people want to return to the workforce and the restaurant industry, we will be willing and able to hire and pay those people,” Tony Kischner said. “We hope that conditions will allow us to return back to normal soon.”