VinePair Podcast: Can the Restaurant Industry Overcome the Post-Covid Labor Crunch?

Food & Drink

labor shortage As vaccination rates continue to rise in the US, Americans are returning to restaurants and bars - even to parts of the country that were previously banned. In response, understaffed establishments are trying to reinstate workers on leave or hire new ones, but many are faced with a new challenge: an

that makes these efforts much more difficult.

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On this week’s VinePair Podcast, Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe wonder whether this labor crisis is just an effect of the pandemic. They discuss the roots of the problem in long-standing trends in the industry, as well as ways that operators could hope to circumvent this challenge. Learn how this labor shortage can force a complete restructuring of the service industry.

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Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.

Zach Bale: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Bale.

A: And that’s the “VinePair Podcast”. Oh man, Zach, it feels a little normal. I don’t know in Seattle, but it’s definitely here.

Z: We could possibly look at a 2021 as if 2020 had never happened. Obviously that won’t be the case. Here in Washington state or in King County, where Seattle is located, 25 percent of people 16 and over are fully vaccinated. I also count myself as part of this cohort. Obviously there are many more. We are very close to all who are entitled. I suppose,it’s a similar status in New York but we’re definitely going there which is cool

A: It’s great. What have you been drinking lately Something delicious? Something delicious?

A: Oh wow, congrats!

Z: Yes, it was a big weekend in my life last weekend. My sister got married on Friday. Languedoc Z: Thanks! On Saturday we had a very little family gathering to celebrate and my dad made lamb and I brought some Syrah-Grenache which is an Kermit Lynch mix from the south of France and it was great. It was imported by magnums who usually handle good stuff. I really wanted to talk about it, and it was mentioned before, but it added to how much more fun and celebratory

feel. I think there is a bit of fetishization in the wine world around Magnums.You can read whatever you want in it, but a large format bottle is something fun that makes these kind of occasions special, it’s also nice because I don’t have to worry. If there are 10 people and I open a bottle and everyone wants something, do I get less than half a glass? This is a pity. The Magnum allows you to have a full glass or be around when everyone is drinking in the area. Again, it’s just something about it. It’s two bottles of wine. It doesn’t seem that remarkable, but in some ways it makes a huge difference. How about you what you drank? Paloma A: I have to admit that an Spindrift, as I have already publicly stated, is not a paloma if it does not contain grapefruit soda.However, on Saturday we hung out in the park with a friend and said, “Oh, let’s do Palomas.” I ran to the bodega and they didn’t have grapefruit soda so I used foam flavored grapefruit water. I used

and it was pretty good. I said to myself, “Wow, I like this a lot better than how sweet the paloma can be when it has the soda in it.” I was wrong, I was wrong I had this on Saturday and it was pretty tasty. Then last night I met up with a friend and had some delicious wines, some random items from one of those wine bars. I can’t even remember the names of the things we drank.

Z: Sounds like a good night. Xinomavro A: Yes, but that’s always the problem and why I always had this problem with peoplewho said discovery happens in restaurants. I was traveling with a friend and we are in a restaurant. We know the people in the restaurant but we ordered wines but I don’t remember the names because I just enjoyed the conversation and the wine in my glass, I didn’t want to pull on my phone and take a picture of the labels. I think we had three or four glasses of wine between us and I don’t remember them. I remember they were delicious. One was an orange wine, one was bright red, Nebbiolo, and the other was the

. But I don’t remember who the producer was or what the wine was. That was the case when I mostly go out to dinner while when I drink wine at home I look at the bottle on my table all night.If I forget, I could look up my receipt.

Z: Or dig in the trash.

A: Yes exactly. I always thought that was so weird, at least before Covid. So much emphasis was placed on the producers saying, “We have to be in restaurants because that’s where the wine discovery takes place.” I would say maybe you discovered a region in the restaurant where, for example, I have a xinomavro for the first time and say, “Wow, that’s so cool, never had this grape before. I should be looking for more xinomavros. “I don’t know if you really discover producers in the restaurant.

Z: Well if you’re the kind of person who pulls out the phone and takes a picture of the bottle, and I’ve served that person from time to time and was that person,but I think there is something else you could do and it would be acceptable if you could go to the wine bar or restaurant and say, “Hey, I had a really good time there last night. I know I drank these types of wines. Can you just tell me the information behind the bottle? “You are right about this discovery in this context, and imports in particular. It is more about varieties and regions than about individual producers. I think domestically, producer names are going to stick on your mind more than a Greek name or something that might be hard for many consumers to internalize after just reading it from a menu. You may remember the diversity or the location more. I’m jealous, I have to have another glass of wine because of Covid.I think it’s coming soon. My wife and I, our anniversary is in May. We will try to have a festive dinner as our anniversary celebration last year was obviously the dinner at home which was the same as the night before and the night after. This could be the first time in over a year that we actually have wine that is not from our collection, which is wild. Kindred A: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing to sit outside because the structures that people have built in New York are just amazing. Last night I went to

who you know, we had the owners on the podcast before. The structures that built these places like Kindred are just amazing. It feels crazy normal. It’s just weird.

Z:I have to ask you a question about this, Adam, because I think she got us into our subject anyway. From the restaurant side as well as the New Yorker side, do you feel that all this stuff is going to stay? Will they be an integral part of the urban landscape? To me, it’s a fascinating conversation that is happening across the country, where so many places have people taken their seats on the sidewalk, even streets have been purposely closed or severely reduced in terms of traffic to accommodate outdoor seating. I am curious, what are you reading? Do you think this will stay

Z: Absolutely.

A: Yes, 100 percent. At least for next year, if not longer. I think it will stay because a lot of people, even those vaccinated like me, don’t really want to eat inside. Who knows,how long will people want this? I think the expectation will be that there has to be a lot more separation if you want to dine indoors. I’m not sure if we will ever go back to the time you have restaurants where the tables are so close together that you could potentially knock over a person’s wine glass when you get up. I just don’t know if we’ll ever come back to it. I mean, remember when you were sitting at a table inside and were basically part of the conversation with the people next to you. If you want. A: I don’t think that’s going to happen anymore. People are very aware of the space. The only way for these restaurants to still be in numbers is to allow them toto have these outdoor seating areas. Many of these outdoor seating areas offer even more seating than before the pandemic. Yes. At least from what I see in New York, most restaurants invest like it’s permanent, or at least permanent enough that the investment is worth it. Some of these structures become very complex. For them they run much more like permanent electricity. You take them out of their restaurant, you go up in the air with steel pipes and then into the structures. It’s well above everyone’s head. It almost looks like telephone poles are coming into these structures from these restaurants. A lot of people invest in nice lighting and nice tables and now the structure is closed and locked in a completely different way. I remember when people first did thiswhen our friends at, Zack Mack Alphabet City Beer Company

posted something about their stuff being stolen from their sidewalk structure because they weren’t really building the things that could really be built back then to protect the structure. It was basically a platform with a few sides and they brought the tables in from the inside out. Now people are specifically investing in outdoor chairs and tables, many of which are now bolted to the bottom of the structure. It’s pretty wild. The majority of people believe that it will be permanent because I know that people are already negotiating with their neighbors. For example, as the City of New York treats this, you will have access to the front of your restaurant. You can take this place in the street where there is a parking lot.If your neighbor is a barber shop or nail salon and they don’t need that facade, you can actually rent it from them. People are bargaining and paying for this space and building bigger spaces. I’ve seen a couple of people do that. When I’ve talked to the owners, they say, “Yes, we will pay into this landlord.” It’s interesting. I see people invest because they believe it will be permanent, who knows? I hope it is because it is a nice way to eat. It’s really.

Z: It combines two things that are really nice in a lot of other places including some parts of the US that have mostly outside dining which is quite nice. It is also true that in some ways you feel more like part of the community,if you dine in your neighborhood. You see people go by or cars go by, maybe not. People who ride bikes. It’s something that you and I both experienced, where you go to many places in Europe and go to the centers of cities and like restaurants whose dining areas spread out in squares and squares. They are everywhere and so it is. These are public spaces that are used by the public. They are not parking spaces. This is not a transportation podcast. I don’t want to go in too deep, I think Covid has given us an opportunity to rethink how much space we are making available in our cities. I would love to see less space for cars and more space for fun things like seating capacity in the restaurant.

A: I think the interesting thing about all of this isthat New York always tried to say, “We want fewer cars.” I think that’s a very good thing. It’s an opportunity to have these rooms that are really beautiful. In front of these structures in New York, there were tables on the sidewalk. That wasn’t great for anyone. They had to be approved by the community board. The community board had decided how much of the sidewalk they wanted to include. If you were the last restaurant on the block to apply for the community board, you may never get outdoor seating as the community has already decided that there are already two other restaurants with sidewalk cafes. You don’t get any. Even with the street café, they were not protected. It’s just an open table on an open sidewalk. It enables peopleto approach you directly. In a city with homeless people, it was not always pleasant for people to show up and ask for money or try to sell them something. Now with these structures you enter and sure it is still open, but you are still in the restaurant if that makes sense. No space is taken on the sidewalk. It’s all on the street. This is so great for so many reasons. It’s really cool to go through neighborhoods that have really invested in these and see how cool they are. It’s really phenomenal, but that brings us to the main topic of the day where there is this boom, right? Along with this boom, something is happening that I think will be reported as a new phenomenon. I think what you are going to add is that this is not really new.But a lot of articles are being published right now. The Times published an article today on what causes massive labor shortages. All of these restaurants that are reopening are having a really hard time hiring people. I’ve heard from everyone I know in the New York business that they can’t find anyone. The reasons for this are different. I had a friend who was a somm who won’t go back to work because she told me the expectations of the places she works in are that you will no longer be just sommes. They also run food and take orders. She doesn’t want that; she just wants to be a wine professional. You predicted in a previous episode that this would happen. It definitely happens.Many wine professionals choose not to return because they don’t want to be waiters or waitresses. They just want to be wine professionals. There are people who have found other well-paying jobs they had in the pandemic or who were re-evaluated for a year when restaurant life was for them. They found other things to do. Zach, you told me this before joining Slack is that there was a labor shortage before that too.

Z: Yes. My very first food and drink article published was an article about a Seattle restaurant workforce shortage. The restaurants had emerged from the great recession and it has gotten worse every year since then, I think there are many reasons this is true. Some of it has been tightened by Covid,and some of that are things that this pandemic could mitigate a bit in the aftermath. I will provide background information for listeners who are not in the restaurant industry and may not be that familiar. One of the things that happened in Seattle, New York, and San Francisco is that you have seen a profound change in the restaurant industry. As a waiter, cook, domestic servant, waiter, bartender, etc., you could be living in New York. You could live in San Francisco. Did you have a glamorous life Or maybe not, although these jobs have their own advantages. You could have a steady job. You could possibly even have a family if you were interested. We just saw the tech industry grow.In these cities rents got crazier. People who worked in restaurants in these cities could no longer afford to live in them. Unless you had a partner who made a lot more money than you did, or had an incredible deal on your rental, or you were young and ready to eat top ramen every day. The idea of ​​a professional service company, frankly, even for sous cooks, cooks, etc., has not kept up with the cost of living in these categories unless you are very successful. As we’ve mentioned in other episodes, people moved to smaller towns or out of the industry because they looked at their bank accounts and said, “I can’t do that.” I can’t tell youhow many people here in Seattle I’ve worked with those who work for Amazon now and say, “I don’t really want to do this, but they’re going to pay me enough to live in Seattle. I don’t want an hour and a half from the restaurant Living away from home where I work is no fun. “It takes away all the appeal of being young, or at least in an industry that has that dynamic element. They said, “If I want to stay in Seattle, I have to work for Amazon or I have to get an office job.”

A: The places I know who can hire them have increased pay dramatically.

Z: Yes, I think there is a way we can find a different balance in the restaurant and bar industry than we did before Covid. I do not think so,that this is a bad thing. Part of me is lamenting this very real fact that we will likely be dealing with fewer full service facilities than before Covid as the labor problem and cost of labor will continue to be very high, if there are more places in the industry that Counter service is offered, I don’t see this as a terrible thing, but I think it means diner goers need to think about going to a full service restaurant, you will pay for the experience. It has always been that way, but in many ways it’s getting truer. It’s getting harder and harder not to calculate what you need to calculate to have a viable business. We’ll see America as a whole spend its money there this next yearwhere it is about restaurants and how important they are. You may have to pay a lot more. I have one more suggestion, but I definitely want to hear your thoughts first, Adam. I’ve always thought that New York was an exception because of the incredible density of restaurants; that there would always be a workforce there. But it sounds like that’s not the case there. Marlow & Sons A: No, even in New York it is very difficult for people to hire employees. There are many factors. For one thing, people are realizing that they can make the same or a better amount of money in other professions. There are fewer people willing to deal with the bullshit. It was a very difficult year. I think when I’m back in a service jobwhere a lot of people come with a lot of aspiration and want to let off a lot of steam, I don’t think that’s attractive to many of people. Many of these restaurants will be like New Years Eve for a while. The other thing is that the people who return are fine, I recently spoke to a restaurant owner who told me that there is a restaurant in Brooklyn that makes huge sums of money every weekend because people want to go out. You have a huge outside area and only make money with your fist. They sell really nice bottles of wine. They sell multi-course meals. That’s because the population who would go to this restaurant didn’t suffer in Covid. We talked about it a couple of times, they had employees who took them from their basement,their second bedroom, dining table, etc., and so they continued to earn. They also didn’t spend on travel and the like in the last year, so they had a lot of disposable income. One restaurant I spoke to said they sell more than $ 100 bottles of wine than ever before. People think, “Why not indulge?” You did it and now I’m going to eat out. It feels like a special occasion even though no one has a birthday, graduation, anniversary, promotion, etc, but we are here. But that also puts a strain on the staff. You have people who in many ways become more difficult to deal with. Other people have found new careers. In this Times anecdote about this sous chef who worked at

in Brooklyn who said:“What do I do for the next year? I will sit here and wait to be sous chef again? No, I’m going to learn computer programming. “He taught himself computer programming and moved to San Francisco. I think a lot of people did that. A lot of people have found new careers because of going up and down for too long. Are we coming back or are we not coming back? I think a lot of this is just fuck it, I’ll find out something else. I’ve always wanted to do X, Y or Z and they did.

Z: I think you make a really good point about how there was an element of volatility earlier in the pandemic. In early 2021, it became a little clearer that vaccination programs would start. There was a lot of uncertainty.When will our restaurants reopen? Do people want to go out and eat? I think for a lot of people, including me, it was a rude awakening to how fragile the industry was. No person who worked in the hospitality industry had any idea that the entire industry could come to a complete standstill in a matter of days. For a lot of people, and especially in some of these big cities we’re talking about, it was completely out of view of anyone until it happened. I think it showed a lot of people how fragile their situation really was. Part of it, of course, is that there have been real problems with unemployment insurance and improving unemployment insurance for people across the country. The political dynamic of this is their own business. I think,it has been shown to so many people that this industry is extremely fragile. Even if we knew about this fragility on an individual level, I’ve worked with many, many people who went from paycheck to paycheck. A bad shift, a bad week, premature illness or injury left them in a really bad financial position - I don’t think we all understood how fragile the industry as a whole was. Many people said, “I don’t want to do this again. Sure, I like restaurants, cooking, serving, bartending, or being a somm, but honestly, I don’t want a job where I can be the person at home and at their computer the next time a pandemic hits works, saves money, not the personstruggling to file unemployment insurance and hoping to get through. It was a strong memory for many people.

A: Do you know what else was a great awakening for many people I think? There was no security, maybe even less security in the large restaurant groups. I see a lot of people when they choose to go back to work, before Covid it was a very cool thing to work for a large restaurant group. I’m not trying to call any of them but I think we all know it’s the ones who have a hospitality group at the end of their name. They own 12, 15 restaurants, and they left their staff just as quickly. I think,many of these smaller establishments really took care of their employees and really struggled to take care of their employees. When there’s so much competition, these people can vote and say, “Huh, it actually seems more fun to work in a place like this. It’s smaller, scratchier. I’m going to make about as much money because it’s so competitive right now. “Basically, if you want someone, you have to be willing to pay. I know great wine bars all over town that are discontinuing Somms that have been to two and three star Michelin restaurants in town because they just want to work in a great place to work. These wine bars really looked after their employees and fought for their employees.People heard about it and the word got out about it, they want to work there because the environment will be better. It will be more fun. It’s almost what happened after the Great Recession, when a lot of young workers said, “I’m going to work for a startup. It’s just as volatile, but at least it’s more fun. I feel part of something because I was screwed in a big company too. I lost my job. There was no safety net there. You didn’t fight for me. “At least the smaller companies in the Great Recession struggled to keep their employees, so you had this huge migration from people to startups. I wonder if that will be the same as where we will see this tremendous migration of workers who choose tostaying in the industry, from the large restaurant groups to the smaller restaurant groups. Possibly to the mom and pop restaurant.

Z: How about starting your own? Surely he was speaking to a number of “next round” people who worked for someone else before Covid and decided that they would strike on their own. Some of them may have these plans in the works before Covid strikes for sure, but I think we’re going to hear a lot of these stories from someone who says, “If I can deal with all this volatility, I could do what too i really want to do and don’t work for anyone else. “I have one more point that I think is related, and I am curious about your thoughts on it, Adam.I’ve been thinking about this for the past year. I was thinking about one thing that might make a difference in some of these whole conversations. I think it would be good as a society to think about whether it makes more sense to treat restaurants and bars the way we treat the performing arts socially. We don’t necessarily consider the sole purpose and focus of this industry to be for profit. We see, as in most places, that a symphony or an opera has a wider social benefit. The idea that there is a societal benefit to having these things, be it through subsidies at different levels or lower costs in different ways. I think it would be good to think as a society and look at restaurants and bars a bit more like that.I’m not saying that a restaurant or bar shouldn’t have a responsibility to be financially efficient or successful, but we’ve seen that we want to treat restaurants and bars as essential businesses. Even during a pandemic, we want to have options for eating and drinking, whether it be takeaway, delivery, or al fresco dining. However, what we saw so often, especially in 2020, was, “Maybe we’re trying to help you, I think.” Again, some of it has to do with the specific 2020 policy and we don’t need to rehash that . I also think this shows that these industries are seen as essential as cities like New York and Seattle are places that a lot of people want to live. So I think it’s our jobMore than just telling businesses support with your dollars because that’s a really inefficient way of doing it. On a deeper, societal, structural level, to provide a setback like you see in many European countries where food and drink are so central to existence that it is simply unthinkable not to support restaurants of all kinds think America does not have a long history of deep culinary appreciation. It’s a new thing. I can’t write laws so I have no idea what to do here. But I think it would be good as an industry to talk about how this industry can be structurally supported so that it is more stable than before in the next crisis? It could then also bring in workers again.Again, this lack of stability explains many of the reasons why people have left the industry. You need to be able to ensure stability, and not just at the individual employer level, as it is very difficult for employers to do so. They create really tough financial problems for employers when they have to stop unemployment. Instead, I think it makes more sense to do this on as broad a level as possible. Roanoke, Va. A: I don’t know if it will happen nationally, but I think smart cities will. It goes back to before we started this conversation when we were talking about the outdoor shelters in New York City. For restaurants, I think one of the reasons everyone thinks they’ll stay permanent is because New York understandsthat the arts and restaurants draw people here. I think the smart cities are now saying, “Shit, we’ve had this crazy migration of people leaving our cities. We have offices that say they’re not coming back. “Ultimately, the way they make people come back is to create places that people want to live in. There are exciting restaurants, a great theater, and great museums. I think New York will realize this. Other places will too. I may be in the minority here, but I think a lot of articles will be written in two to three years so I want to get on the record now. There will be a lot of articles that say we’ve gone through this stagewhere everyone worked from home after Covid was nice, but we’re also happy to be back in the offices. I think we will be going back to the offices for the most part. I think some jobs will be mostly removed. I really think that in a year or two, if we really get through this and no one is wondering if they have to wear their mask to their desk etc, there will be a massive return to the offices. There’s a sense of community you get there that you don’t get anywhere else. We sit here arguing that we need to teach personally. I think you will hear the same argument from certain companies; I know that VinePair, for example, works better when we are all together. We can brainstorm.We can come up with bigger ideas for stories. We can help fix parts. We have huge package ideas. All of this happens because we’re in the same office together and everyone wants to come back. In this case, there will be cities competing for these locations and workers. The way you get them is that you have a place that people want to live in. If you don’t, people will go elsewhere. You look at the pre-Covid places that really did that to the breweries. I know we wrote a huge chunk a few years ago about how

revitalized its city by making it a place for breweries to set up shop. I think they have nine or ten breweries in town now. There was a scene for peoplewho like beer. Suddenly people want to live in Roanoke. Now startups are saying, “Let’s have an office in Roanoke. It’s a cool place to live. There is a good quality of life. “It will be the same. It’s always about money, right? This realization that more people mean more tax revenue means better services that certain places, possibly New York, maybe Seattle, are trying to figure out how to better serve restaurants. They realize that restaurants and bars are one of the best recruiting tools to get someone to move to your city. Maybe a good sports team. But the jets were forever terrible and people still live in New York. It’s culture, food and drink. That will be a great realization. The problem is,that so many people in Covid screwed up so much so early on; but I would like to think some places will move to correct it.

Z: I think so too. I think they will. A: Zach, always good conversation. If you have any thoughts, listeners, drop us an email at

Z: Sounds great.

. Let us know what you think. Let us know if you are interested in anything else. We always love to hear from readers. Zach, I’ll talk to you next week.

Thank you for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you love this show as much as we do then please leave a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits.VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all of the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I’d like to say a special thank you to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin for making all of this possible, as well as Keith Beaver’s Tasting Director VinePair who is an additional producer on the show. I would also like to say thank you to every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that flow into the show each week. Thank you for listening and see you again. VP Pro This story is part of , our free content platform and newsletter for the beverage industry, all about wine, beer and spirits - and beyond.