A Different Kind Of Epidemic Faces Restaurants

Eric Lemonides, a co-owner of Almond restaurant in Bridgehampton. Michael Wright photo

The South Fork restaurant industry left millions of dollars on the table, so to speak, in the summer of 2021 because of a lack of workers that forced many restaurants to close for some of the precious few summertime shifts that would usually be busy and lucrative.

Pandemic seating restrictions that had hobbled restaurants in 2020 had largely been lifted and outdoor dining areas meant most restaurants would be at their usual pre-pandemic capacity — or more, in many cases. Among customers, the fears of the pandemic, at least early in the summer, had been largely set aside and restaurants were seeing unprecedented demand as the first vaccinated summer got rolling.

But it quickly became apparent that a new epidemic was going to be the main issue in 2021: a dearth of employees.

Dozens of restaurants, including some of the most popular and successful establishments in the region, were closed during popular lunch shifts or even dinner shifts on some weeknights because of limited staff.

Others struggled to keep up with demand and had to dial back the number of reservations they would accept, the number of seats they made available or simply accept that longer wait times for service would send some customers elsewhere.

Certainly a lack of eager customers was not the issue. With vaccination rates pushing 80 percent in the local population, restaurants were packed with hungry diners — where they could get in.

“People would say to me, ‘Well, at least you’re having a great summer since there’s so many people out here,’ but it’s like, dude, we were closed for 20 percent of the summer,” said Eric Lemonides, co-owner of Almond in Bridgehampton, which was closed for dinner two night a week because of a lack of staff. The renowned restaurant had been open seven days a week, year round, since it opened in 2001. “That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars we left on the table — just us. Between all of us, millions of dollars. That’s millions of dollars into the local economy. That’s the reality.”

At Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton, long one of the region’s most celebrated and successful restaurants, the story was much the same: the dining room was dark two days a week to give it’s highly-trained staff necessary time off. In all, three of the five popular local restaurants owned by the same partnership — Nick & Toni’s and Rowdy Hall in East Hampton, Coche Comedor and La Fondita in Amagansett and Townline BBQ in Wainscott — had to trim their hours of service this summer because of staffing shortages.

“I try not to do the math too many times,” partner Mark Smith said. “We never made it to seven days at Nick & Toni’s, we ultimately went down to five at [Coche Comedor]. We haven’t served lunch at Rowdy during the week since March of 2020 — after 20 years of seven days a week lunch and dinner.”

The reasons for the staffing shortages were myriad: A vast lack of affordable housing that severely limited the number of seasonal workers — from immigrant workers to college kids to professional restaurant waitstaff and cooks — who came to the region looking for work; a migration away from the service industry that has been seen across the nation; enhanced unemployment benefits from federal aid packages; and a job market that quickly absorbed every willing and able worker that entered its sphere of influence, made finding employees willing to take on restaurant jobs a scramble.

“Brother, can you spare a rental house,” Mr. Lemonides, who also owns outposts of Almond in New York City and Palm Beach, Florida, said with a half-hearted chuckle. “That’s pretty much what it comes down to. If I had four bedrooms over this place, I would’ve been open seven days. I could have brought staff up from Florida, they would come in a heartbeat, but there’s no place for them to live. I know people who stayed at a restaurant they didn’t like because it had housing.”

The availability of housing for people earning service industry wages has dwindled steadily for a decade or more as the rise of rental services like VRBO and Airbnb have fed a shift by those who have homes for rent to look to lucrative short-term rentals through the summer months, rather than full-seasons. The pandemic and the flight of wealthy urban denizens to the East End amplified the shortages exponentially and drove prices for the few rentals that were available far beyond what even several restaurant employees could justify.

Adding to the complications, towns in the last several years have cracked down on share-rentals by more than four unrelated people — robbing college students and seasonal workers of a common option.

Some employers desperately tried to overcome the difficulties by offering attractive incentives. Citarella grocery stores offered “signing bonuses” to new employees that started at $1,500 and rose to more than $2,000 as the summer wore on.

David Hersh owns six restaurants: three on the South Fork, one in Patchogue, one in New Hyde Park and one in Louisiana. Business at all was good this summer. Staffing at all was difficult.

But at his South Fork restaurants — Cowfish and Rumba in Hampton Bays and Flora in Westhampton Beach — it was “10 times worse” he said, even though his company offers a much more extensive package of benefits to its workers than almost any other in the region.

“We have health benefits, medical and dental, a [401k] with matching, and paid vacations for all full-time employees, and we pay several dollars an hour more than most restaurants, and it’s still hard to find enough people,” Mr. Hersh said recently. “We are trying to move a manager here from New Orleans. He has to move his family and the same size house that he pays $1,800 a month for now, would be $6,000 a month out here. Four times as much. That’s crazy. It makes it impossible to recruit.”

Housing was the biggest hurdle, certainly. Mr. Hersh said that local lawmakers desperately need to take up creative legislation to help restaurants if the industry is to survive. He suggested that perhaps allowing restaurant owners to purchase homes that could then be occupied by a larger number of people than would otherwise be allowed, effectively creating dormitories for their staff, might be able to help some who can afford such an investment.

Mr. Hersh said that he also saw a change in the demographics of those who he was able to hire this summer: with far fewer college-age and those in their early 20s.

“That was the biggest gap for us — it’s a cultural shift,” he added. “The younger generation, they’re less interested in working in the summer and their parents allow them to just hang out and travel.”

Mr. Hersh also said that legal restrictions on hiring undocumented immigrants has hamstrung restaurants and other service industry businesses from tapping a resource that could help them survive.

Much blame for staffing shortages was placed on enhanced benefits and extended eligibility, for those who claimed unemployment. Signs saying that people simply didn’t want to work were prevalent. Few restaurant owners said they thought that the benefits, which were more than $1,100 per week in 2020 but down to a maximum of $800 a week in 2021, played much of a role in the shortages seen on the South Fork.

“Initially, it might have been the unemployment to some extent, but that wasn’t really it — that might have just shown some people that they wanted out of the industry,” Mr. Smith said.

The wrinkles of happenstance that landed some restaurants in a position of having enough staff to at least get by this summer were not lost on those owners who didn’t miss lunch or dinner shifts. “People have re-evaluated working nights, working holidays,” he said.

“I can only sing the praises of our staff for doing what they did this summer,” said Michael Cinque, co-owner of LT Burger and Sag Pizza in Sag Harbor, both of which managed to keep their regular hours through the summer. “The staff we had hung in there. We had to talk some folks down off the ledge in August because everyone was very, very tired from being so short handed. But they were making good money — our clientele are very good to our staff — and we got lucky, I suppose, to some extent, and were able to get by.”

The losses of the summer of 2020 for the restaurant industry were soothed, considerably, by the fact that the winter of 2020-21 saw a far shallower dip in business as the summer faded into the fall and then into winter. With fewer people traveling, many offices in the city still closed and concerns about the health risks of urban living still lingering before vaccinations rolled out, the winter was the best most restaurants had ever had.

Few think that will carry on through the winter of 2021-22 to quite the same extent. The drop in population since Labor Day weekend has been apparent already and the return of travel has many seeing a quieter, more traditional off-season on the horizon — for better and worse.

“We saw a slow down enough that we are able to staff appropriately to handle what’s coming,” Mr. Lemonides said, though his restaurant has still not returned to its seven day schedule. “But we’re going to have a real off-season this year. Depending on who you talk to, they’re either excited about that or sad about that.”