Staff shortage challenges local restaurants

Posted 7/17/19

Alison Hero, owner of the Silverwater Cafe, has had only one day off since Father’s Day.

Beyond her normal managerial duties of a restaurateur, Hero has been in the kitchen, cooking alongside her employees.

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Staff shortage challenges local restaurants

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(This story has been edited to clarify that Alison Hero is not married to restaurant co-owner David Hero, who is her ex-husband, who is now married to Nancy Speser and to clarify the pay of Silverwater Cafe servers and kitchen staff.)

Alison Hero, owner of the Silverwater Cafe, has had only one day off since Father’s Day.

Beyond her normal managerial duties of a restaurateur, Hero has been in the kitchen, cooking alongside her employees.

In October, Hero and her business partner David will be celebrating their 30th anniversary of owning the Silverwater Cafe. But over those 30 years, Hero said it has been getting continually harder to find staff to work at the restaurant. This year is the worst yet, she said.

“It’s a huge problem,” she said. “And I don’t see it getting any better.”

The main issue, she said, is housing.

“The market has gone skyrocketing up and it’s priced out the people who work in the restaurant industry,” she said.

Hero isn’t the only one who has noticed the trend. Kris Nelson, who owns Sirens, Alchemy Bistro and the Old Whiskey Mill, Lora Wood, owner of Quench Waterfront Kitchen and Bar, and Dominic Svornich, owner of the Cellar Door, echoed her concerns.

Each year for the past three years, it has been harder and harder to find staff, Kris Nelson said.

“This year is the most significant by far,” Nelson said. “We had an opening for a chef at Alchemy and we had some amazing applicants from the East Coast, but nobody could find a place to stay.”

All of the restaurateurs pointed to the lack of available and affordable housing in Port Townsend. Nelson said she has staff members who commute from Quilcene, or even Poulsbo, to work.

“People can’t afford to live here,” Svornich said. The Cellar Door had their kitchen open for about 75 days before having to close it because they didn’t have enough staff, he said. When they tried to hire another kitchen person, there were about 15 other kitchen positions open in town at the same time. Not only that, but the applicants had other jobs, which made scheduling complicated.

“A lot of people work three jobs because that’s the only way they can make it work,” he said.

For restaurant workers, having multiple jobs still doesn’t make it easy to afford a place to live.

“We seem to be perpetually short-staffed,” said Isaac Urner, who is a dishwasher at Alchemy Bistro and Wine Bar.

“A number of coworkers I know are in varying degrees of sketchy living situations.”

Urner listed coworkers he knows who are homeless, live in the woods, are crashing at friends’ homes, or are living in tiny homes.

“Low pay is not the only issue,” he said. “Availability is a problem.”

Many workers at Silverwater, Quench, the Cellar Door and Alchemy, plus other restaurants in Port Townsend make minimum wage plus tips. Washington state has one of the highest minimum wages in the nation, at $12 an hour.

This week, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Raise the Wage Act, which will raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025.

The federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour has not changed since 2009, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Their study showed that an increase in minimum wage would increase the wages of 17 million workers whose wages would otherwise be below $15 per hour. The extra income would move roughly 1.3 million people out of poverty, CBO estimated. But it would also reduce business income and raise prices as higher labor costs are absorbed by business owners and then passed on to consumers.

“There’s this fine line of just barely being able to pay people enough and still keeping your doors open,” Hero said. At Silverwater, she employs 52 people at minimum wage plus tips. But as the minimum wage goes up, it affects her ability to afford the costs of operating a restaurant.

“My workers are my biggest asset here,” she said. “But most of them would rather not push customers away by increasing the prices of the food. There are so many moving parts to running a restaurant.”

Even with the state’s minimum wage being one of the highest in the country, workers are continually priced out of housing, Svornich said.

“Renters are being displaced because people are selling houses they might have previously rented out,” he said.

In terms of finding staff, he said this year is far worse than normal because there are several new restaurants and bars in town, such as the In Between and the new Port Townsend Vineyards location.

“There is a very finite amount of people in the industry here,” he said.

Hero said she doesn’t see enough effort from the community and the city to try and make housing more affordable for workers.

An example of one way to battle that issue is Fort Worden, which employs food service workers as well as maintenance staff and seasonal staff, and is working on developing workforce housing onsite, since there is minimal workforce housing in Port Townsend.

Nelson, who has sat on the City Council in the past, said she hopes that Port Townsend can look to what the city of Seattle is doing for smaller, affordable housing as an example of some solutions.

Lora Wood, who owns Quench, wondered if there is less draw for new workers into the restaurant industry.

“Every summer you would get high school kids looking for a summer job working as a dishwasher or server,” she said. “You don’t get nearly as many of those applications anymore.”

Wood said she enjoyed coaching young workers in the profession. She hires people not just for seasonal work, but in the hopes of beginning long term careers.

“I don’t know if the restaurant business is not something that young people aspire to do anymore, or if it has gotten a bad rap over the years. But it’s an honorable profession and a good way to learn good life skills,” she said. “The truth is it’s an art form. It’s a skillset and it takes years of crafting that.”

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