Chicago restaurants struggle to keep staff as exhausted workers are bailed out for better pay and less stress


CHICAGO — Chef Won Kim needs 10 people to fully staff his Bridgeport restaurant, Kimski. Right now there are about five.

Turnover is so high that some employees don’t stay longer than a month, Kim said. The staff earn $15 an hour plus tips, which brings in about $20-25 an hour before taxes. But that’s still not enough for staff members to show up, he said.

“Everyone interviews really well,” Kim said. “They talk about dedication and talk about how hard they will work and then when the going gets tough…even one busy night is too much for them to handle. I don’t think there’s just one reason.

According to the National Restaurant Association, seven out of ten restaurants nationwide are understaffed and struggling to retain and attract employees. Staff shortages have forced some Chicago restaurants to close permanently while others have cut hours, cut service and pushed employees to work longer hours to stay afloat.

The nationwide rush for the restaurant comes amid a major resignation in the United States. A record 4.5 million American workers quit their jobs in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One million of these people worked in the restaurant and hotel industries.

An average of 771,000 workers per month left the two industries nationwide between February and June.

Credit: Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
Won Kim, owner of Kimski in Bridgeport, helps staff deep clean and organize the restaurant Aug. 29, 2022.

Restaurants offer more incentives to bring people in, but that’s not enough for burnt-out service-industry veterans or job applicants disappointed by long hours, grumpy customers and grueling work.

Kim understands burnout, he said. The constant stress of running a restaurant led him to consider hiring Kimski for restaurant pop-ups during the winter so he could take a break, he said.

“These days – I’m not even lying to you – my only front of house requirement is to show up,” Kim said. “Some people can’t even do that.”

Workers want better pay

Business owners, industry experts and former restaurant workers have different views on why it has been so difficult to find and retain workers.

Low wages are the most common reason people leave the restaurant industry, according to a July 2021 study from the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center.

The average hourly wage for the food industry is $17.72 nationally — the lowest hourly average in any labor market, according to federal data.

Sonny Nouard, former chef, has worked in the restaurant industry for 15 years. Nouard started looking for other jobs during the pandemic after losing his Northalsted restaurant, Istanbul Grill, but he was unhappy with what was on offer.

Nouard said some low-staffed places were struggling to keep pace with cleaning; others could not afford his salary as sous chef or executive chef. Both made the estate unattractive and he lost his passion for cooking, he said.

“A friend of mine, he’s a sub [chef]and he wins $55,000 [annually] and cooks 60 hours a week. I look at him and say, ‘What the hell are you doing? It’s not enough money,” said Nouard.

Credit: Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
A Kimski staff member helps out during “deep cleaning day”. The restaurant struggled to retain staff after the pandemic.

Jamie Gibson had been in the industry since 2006; most recently, he ran the River North restaurant, Reverie, until it closed in 2020. Since then, he has been extremely reluctant to return to the Chicago restaurant scene, turning down offers to manage or work security in d other clubs, he said.

Gibson left Sound Bar after a fatal shooting outside the club killed his colleague in March 2019. The lingering trauma of that incident, combined with concerns about gun violence in River North and low pay, left him deterred from accepting similar work, he said. .

“I know tons of people who just won’t go back to anything involving downtown Chicago,” Gibson said. “From the bar scene to the restaurant scene…it all hurts because people are sick of it, and no one gets paid enough to worry about being robbed, shot, hijacked or murdered.”

The pandemic has also given people a chance to consider other industries and opportunities that fit their goals, Gibson said. Noouard agreed, having recently started school to pursue studies in sound engineering.

Dominque Durr, a neosoul singer, was on Pink Taco’s laid-off staff at River North in July. The owners of the restaurant closed it to open another concept.

Durr was able to find a job almost immediately at Epic Burger, earning $15 an hour working in the register and in the kitchen. She would like it to be $18 an hour, she said, but is grateful to have regular hours and a flexible schedule that suits her music career, she said.

Still, the mother-of-three said she wishes the industry could offer more stability until she could leave the restaurant business to focus on her passion as a full-time musician.

“We work hard. Forty hours just to pinch pennies…it’s exhausting,” Durr said.

A 2021 survey of more than 4,700 restaurant workers showed that 15% had changed industries in the past year, and another 33% wanted to do the same, according to Black Box Intelligence.

“If you don’t have to go back to hell, why set yourself on fire?” said Gibson.

“I would schedule 10 interviews, and only 2-3 of them would show up”

Although the industry is struggling with inflation and staffing shortages, restaurants are trying anything and everything to keep their employees, said Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

When Chicago’s restaurant industry shut down in March 2020, many of their employees went to work at other businesses, like distribution centers and cannabis stores, Toia said.

Many restaurants are offering higher wages, health and welfare benefits, faster check payments, family leave and more to attract employees, Toia said.

But that wasn’t enough to get contestants into some bars and restaurants, owners said.

“We couldn’t find anyone to work in the kitchen for $25 an hour,” said Stasch Kuras, former manager of Boss Bar and Miki’s Park in River North. “And we were willing to bring in someone with very little or no experience. I would schedule 10 interviews, and only two or three of them would show up.

Of those who were offered jobs, some ended up becoming ghosts of Kuras, he said. The few people who responded took jobs in other industries, he said.

Credit: Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
A Kimski staff member helps deep clean the restaurant on August 29, 2022.

Every day with a vacancy leaves the rest of the crew trying to fill the shortage, Kuras said; he fears this will lead to industry-wide burnout.

“Boss girls, they worked 14, 15, 16 hour shifts. Again, the money there…sometimes they can make $1,000 on a Friday or Saturday night, but they’re seriously depleted,” Kuras said.

Kuras is a bartender at the Ritz-Carlton, a union-owned property where workers receive health benefits, overtime, paid time off, and nearly $30 an hour plus tips after the first year. However, several vacancies have not been filled.

To fill the void, executives asked workers to work seven or more days in a row – which many refused to do under their union – resulting in limited hours at the hotel cafe and reduced hours. 24-hour working hours. service, says Kuras.

Kim has also had to cut her hours at Kimski and the restaurant is now only open five days a week. He also took care of preparing and stocking the kitchen in the morning.

The past two years, in the face of staff shortages, have taken the fun out of the business, Kim said.

“It’s sad to be beaten like this, but I’m at my wit’s end,” Kim said.

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