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To bring back workers, restaurants should rediscover capitalism

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Government did more for the restaurant industry over this past COVID-Year-from-Hell than anyone would have expected in a capitalist economy. Let’s not waste this opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We need to dump the old churn-and-burn business model that relied on low wages and short-term profits and embrace American capitalism by building businesses that offer workers a realistic long-term career path.

Some restaurant owners aim to score political points by putting President Biden or their local leaders on the spot. “How will you solve our labor shortage,” some ask. “What will you do to fix our problems?”

Hey, I’ve got a question for some of my fellow restaurateurs: When did you start expecting the government to tell us what to do? This is the United States of America, not some centrally planned socialist autocracy. Capitalism means using our brains to invent and innovate our way toward success. Shame on us if we look to government for a handout instead of a hand up.

When the president responded at a recent town hall event that the government spent billions of dollars to make sure restaurants could stay open, the only mature response is: “Thank you!”

The restaurant business doesn’t have an employee problem, it has a wage and benefit problem. For too long, restaurants have paid people insulting wages to work ridiculously long hours.

As of July 20, according to ZipRecruiter, U.S. restaurant workers’ average annual pay is $21,470 — which averages out to be just over ten bucks an hour. Nobody can live on that. I hear many owners complaining about having to pay $15 an hour now, but a CNBC analysis of cost-of-living data from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that, “Even with a raise to $15 per hour, a typical family of four couldn’t afford the basics in any U.S. state.”

The narrative that restaurant workers don’t want to work is wrong. Restaurant staff have one of the best work ethics of any industry in the nation. But they don’t want to get sick and potentially die by working for a business that treats them as an expendable commodity.

Staff turnover among restaurants and bars this year is mind-boggling, with lots of workers headed out of the industry even as food service businesses are struggling to hire as many as possible.

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data for May 2021 shows that the accommodation and food services sector shed more workers than any other industry that month, with 706,000 restaurant and bar workers quitting their jobs. That 5.7 percent decline followed similar monthly numbers of workers dropping out of this sector each of the prior months in 2021.

The first half of 2021 saw an increase in the number of restaurant jobs, according to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), but those numbers are still below what they were in 2019. Based on BLS data, the NRA reported that restaurants and bars added 194,300 workers in June 2021, although that increase likely includes strictly summer-season jobs in certain states.

What would persuade restaurant workers to stick around? Research from the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center found that, “The vast majority of all respondents (78 percent) report having a full, stable, livable wage would make them consider staying at their job.” Oh, and they also want to be treated better.

It’s time to create a culture that actually values our people. It’s time to create careers that people pursue because they love this industry, not because they just need a job. It’s time to change the old bottom-feeder mindset of hiring people who will work for the least amount of money.

Restaurant jobs were tough enough before COVID, but they became even harder during the pandemic. Wait staff have to face not only whatever pathogens people might bring in the door, but also the not-always-civil behavior of some patrons.

My restaurant employees literally became frontline workers last year. They showed up, put their masks on and got to work. When the pandemic hit, I realized I could either close down and blame the virus or the government — or I could adapt by temporarily changing from a hospitality company to a humanitarian organization. To stay in business we rallied to help others. If our customers couldn’t come to us because of COVID-19 closures, we’d go to them.

We made and delivered free meals to more than 30,000 elderly shut-ins. We launched a nonprofit called We Care, Inc., that set up community refrigerators around the D.C. area stocked with meals from our kitchens and from other restaurants, paid for through grants and donations. This Feed the Fridge initiative helped keep us and lots of our competitors in business, making healthy meals for individuals and families struggling with food insecurity.

I did all that so my business and my people would survive this crisis. But this was not heroism, it was capitalism. Capitalism means balancing supply and demand in a market economy. Capitalism means solving our own problems, not whining that the government isn’t solving them for us.

I believe a growing number of my fellow restaurant owners recognize that an industry in which 50 percent of restaurants fail after three years is fundamentally flawed. We need to rebuild our businesses to succeed for the long term. We need to redesign restaurants with staff in mind. Most of all, we need to get past the political gotcha thinking that distorts and thwarts our collective ability to help one another in times of crisis and work for the common good. 

Let’s quit whining about government, reembrace capitalism, and go turn this crisis into an opportunity for reinvention. Let’s collaborate with our workers, pay them well, and innovate our way to prosperity for everyone.

Mark Bucher is co-owner of Medium Rare Restaurant Group and founder of Feed the Fridge/We Care, Inc. Twitter: @mediumraredc

Tags demand surge business hiring challenges covid-19 coronavirus pandemic workers employers employees restaurants Economy of the United States Food and drink Fridge/We Care Inc. Joe Biden Medium Rare Restaurant Group National Restaurant Association Online food ordering restaurant worker shortage

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