Restaurants feel pinch with lack of reliable help

Photos by Brittney Lohmiller/The Herald
Azura Grill and Cafe owner Angie Sanchez-Hostetter, left, and Faith Pyle, 17, both of Jasper, filled breakfast orders at the restaurant Friday morning. Pyle started working at Azura approximately six months ago and has been able to help out regularly since she takes online classes for her senior year of high school.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

JASPER — At Azura Grill & Cafe in Jasper, a full staff is 15 employees— six full-time and nine part-time— plus owners Nick Hostetter and Angie Sanchez-Hostetter. Right now, the staff is down to two full-time staff and a couple part-time staff, and Nick and Angie can’t fill their openings.

In a Facebook post dated March 2, Nick lamented that in the three weeks prior, he and Angie had hired three new people. By the time of the post, all three had quit. When Nick and Angie post a job, they get only a handful of applicants when they used to get stacks, and more often than not, the people who apply don’t turn out to be good employees.

“I feel like they want to ask me about the job before they want to be interviewed,” Nick said.

It’s an issue that’s cropped up in the last few years.

Nick and Angie have been in business for 14 years, but said it’s only been in the last three or four that they’ve started to feel the pinch. If they find someone to hire, it's a toss up on whether or not the person will be a good employee. Recently, Nick said, he hired someone who was coming off unemployment after about two years. The person worked four days and quit. Others come and work for a day, then think they know everything, making them nearly impossible to train. People like that don’t tend to last long, Nick said. Another employee recently left because a few others did and the employee didn’t want to take on extra work.

Nick and Angie are quick to point out that the issue isn’t just with high school students or millennials — those born between 1980 and 1995. Two people who recently started and quit were older than Nick and Angie are, Angie said, and a lot of the students they hire in the summer are hard workers.

“We have high school kids who would work circles around the adults,” Nick said.

Azura Grill and Cafe employee Landyn Schneider of Jasper took breakfast orders at the restaurant Friday morning. Schneider is a nursing student at Indiana University and has worked at Azura since she could drive. "We're lucky that a few of our college girls came back to help," Angie Sanchez-Hostetter said.

The core staff at Azura is very good, Nick and Angie said, but more just like them are needed. In the meantime, Nick and Angie take on more hours themselves, sometimes working 10 hours a day, seven days a week, and calling on past employees to work to fill gaps. Once summer comes, Nick said, they’ll be OK because college and high school students will be off school. But once fall comes, the pinch will hit again.

Nick and Angie aren’t the only ones struggling to fill openings. Kim Aull, co-owner of Mill House Restaurant in Jasper and Venue 1408 — previously Reflections — in Huntingburg, has several positions that are constantly open. She’s always looking for dishwashers, food runners and people to work Mill House’s pizza station. In the past, high school students or people seeking second jobs often filled those positions, but to Aull, it seems like fewer of those type of employees are available.

“I feel like the work ethic has changed a little bit,” Aull said.

While she still hires a lot of high school students, she said it seems like parents aren’t requiring their kids to work as much as they used to. Whether or not a kid has bills of their own to pay is evident in how often they call off or how long they stay, Aull said. Still, she’s happy to hire high school students and wishes more would apply. One of her best employees, she said, was a high school student in multiple clubs and sports, with good grades. To Aull, a high school job is key to being prepared for post-graduate life.

“They learn to work for bosses,” she said. “They learn to work with the public — skills that will prepare them for the real world.”

Without high school workers, Aull wonders how restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores in the area will find staffing in the future.

Azura Grill and Cafe owner Nick Hostetter took orders at the restaurant's drive-thru Friday morning.

The restaurant industry isn’t the only one feeling a staffing pinch. Brady McGee, multi-branch manager with People Ready, a national staffing agency with an office in Jasper, said he always has 30 to 50 open positions across several industries, with construction, hospitality — which includes restaurants — and logistics having the most openings.

He attributes the pinch to the shrinking labor pool as the economy has bounced back from the Great Recession.

The low unemployment rate in Dubois and surrounding counties is another major factor, McGee said. According to March’s unemployment report, Dubois County had a 2.6 percent unemployment rate. Surrounding counties ranged from 2.8 percent in Daviess County to 5.4 percent in Crawford County. Indiana as a whole sits at 3.3 percent. A 3 percent unemployment rate is considered full employment.

“I think that’s where we’ve found ourselves (at full employment),” McGee said.

Nick and Angie acknowledge the area’s low unemployment rate as a factor in their struggle. They also find themselves competing with other industries in the area for employees and people bouncing from job to job. McGee sees people bouncing around, too. It’s a sign that the power in the labor market has shifted from employers to employees, McGee said, and he’s seen people willing to move for as little as a quarter more an hour in wages.

At Azura, Nick and Angie have debated raising wages, but that would require raising prices, and the wages don’t seem to be the issue anyway. Plus, Nick’s not sure the market would bear higher prices on their menu. They’ve also thought about automating more of the work and cutting back their hours — Azura is currently open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. — but then a lot of regular customers would be turned away.

The couple is also skeptical of the new developments in Jasper and the restaurants developers plan to bring in. With restaurants already struggling to find staff, they worry.

“We’re not as nervous about them stealing customers as we are them stealing employees,” Angie said.

Neither the Hostetters, Aull or McGee knew the answer to the problem. One thing is certain: If you need a job or second job in Dubois County and you’re willing to work, you can find employment.




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