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Exhausted Charleston area restaurant workers bear the brunt of hospitality staffing crisis

Gypsy Pantry guest check

Gypsy Pantry guest check. Provided

With pent-up demand for dine-in meals colliding headlong into restaurants struggling to rebuild their staffs, Giselle Gaeta doesn’t have the bandwidth to be bubbly.

The Summerville location of Gypsy Pantry, where Gaeta works, is down five employees, so she and her colleagues are scrambling to cover for the shortfall.

“My main goal is to get you everything you need, fast (and) efficiently,” Gaeta said of her approach.

That wasn’t enough for a recent customer who bypassed the pre-calculated tip choices on his check to leave a “custom tip” of 8 percent on a $57.88 bill.

“Smile & be a little more polite,” he wrote, drawing a little happy face to show what he had in mind.

If Gaeta felt like smiling before receiving the unsolicited advice, the nasty note killed off any strain of a good mood. She was frustrated by the customer failing to recognize how hard she was trying, and angry that her pay at the end of the day again wouldn’t accurately reflect the number of people she served.

“You can tell in everybody’s face that we’re just tired,” Gaeta said. “Exhausting is not even the word to explain it.”

An epic staffing shortage has unnerved Charleston-area restaurant owners who fear the inability to meet customers’ expectations will jeopardize businesses they kept afloat throughout the pandemic. Restaurateurs are frantically paring down menus and abbreviating service hours in hopes of compensating for unfilled positions.

For employees, though, there are no workarounds. Forced to deal with customers who didn’t use their pandemic year to acquire compassion, they say they’re facing unprecedented stress that’s made them reconsider their decision to stick with the hospitality industry.

Gaeta emphasized she has no intention of ending her relationship with Cuban Gypsy Pantry. She’s too loyal to coworkers to leave them now.

“Even my manager is burnt out,” she said.

Still, employers know they can’t count on every worker to put up with impatient patrons, enforce safety protocols and shun a generous unemployment check out of moral obligation.

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Restaurant Business Online reported that several chain restaurants are focusing on retaining workers instead of trying to woo new ones. Olive Garden spent $17 million on a “thank you bonus” for its 90,000 employees. (Divided equally, that comes to $188 per person.) Parent company Darden Restaurants also bumped up its pay rates, so nobody earns less than $10 an hour.

Yet frustrated restaurant managers say money doesn’t seem to be the primary sticking point for prospective employees. Indeed, back-of-house wages offered this week on Craigslist include $19 to $23 an hour at KinFolk, $16 to $22 at Grill 225, $16 to $20 at Melfi’s and $18 to $20 at Luke n’ Ollie’s Pizzeria.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest data, the average hourly wage for restaurant cooks in South Carolina is $12.82.

“One of the reasons I started my pop-up was because when things started opening up, I heard how awful patrons were being. I realized if I had to deal with them, I needed to give myself the ability to tell them to (get lost),” said Ana Alexandra, using stronger language than most general managers would abide in the dining room.

Prior to launching Mama Ana’s Arepas, Alexandra worked at downtown Charleston restaurants, including Little Jack’s Tavern and Herd Provisions.

By contrast, Gaeta only has two years of experience in the food-and-beverage industry. But in that time, she has never seen customers behave so outrageously.

“People come in every day in hordes,” she said. “I let them know beforehand we’re severely understaffed; please be kind and patient with us. And they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re running around like a chicken with your head cut off,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, sir.’ ”

Ten minutes later, Gaeta said, the same momentarily sympathetic customer is wont to bark, “Where’s my sangria? You all need to hire more people.”

“We’ve been trying really hard,” she responds.

Beyond the chaos that customers can see, Gaeta said patrons don’t appreciate the huge volume of to-go orders that restaurants are now processing for unvaccinated diners and others who still prefer to stay home. When meals take longer than usual to produce, she said, the kitchen is sometimes working its way through a dozen orders for off-site customers.

Although Gaeta has thought about making help-wanted fliers to post around town, she hasn’t done it yet.

She’s too busy working.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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