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Charleston area restaurateurs worry laid-off workers on unemployment won't want jobs back

Employees of The Obstinate Daughter's sister restaurant Wild Olive reportedly plan to return

Pasta maker Brian Parkhurst winds through the busy prep kitchen in the basement of The Obstinate Daughter on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. File/Staff

It’s Michael Osanloo’s job to sell hot dogs.

As CEO of Portillo’s Hot Dogs, a Chicago-based chain with 60 locations in eight states, it seems like Osanloo ought to be talking up the virtues of sport peppers and poppy-seed buns right about now. But after decades in business, Portillo’s doesn’t need to coax its customers into placing orders for hallowed favorites when the world’s upturned.

Portillo’s priciest takeout item is an $11.19 sandwich with Polish sausage and bonus-sized portion of Italian beef. Yet in the era of dining room closures, a location can still clear $5,000 in drive-thru business over the course of an hour.

“I don’t know if I can handle more than that,” Osanloo recently confessed during a leadership seminar hosted by Nation’s Restaurant News.

So rather than marketing meals to prospective customers, Osanloo is marketing Portillo’s to its furloughed and still-working employees.

“Even 24 hours of radio silence from me is going to be threatening,” he says. “I do a call three times a week with my field leadership. ... I’m doing personal check-ins; I text people. We feed them for free; we give them gift cards. We show them love.”

If everything goes as planned, he continues, “When we come out of this, our team members will be super engaged.”

He knows he can’t sell hot dogs without them.

In the raging sea of uncertainty that restaurant owners now must navigate, few swells are as daunting as the looming question of whether employees will come back to work. According to a survey conducted this month by The James Beard Foundation, 16 percent of restaurateurs consider “rehiring staff” a bigger obstacle to reopening than luring back customers or coming up with cash to pay vendors.

Keeping a restaurant fully staffed was such a challenge prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that owners routinely and comfortably referred to it as a crisis. But those long-standing concerns have been compounded by the same federal relief program which was supposed to prop up the restaurant industry.

As restaurateur Tom Colicchio, a spokesman for the Independent Restaurant Coalition, recently summarized the situation: “They’re not going to come back to work because unemployment is too attractive.”

Double trouble

Under the coronavirus stimulus package, South Carolinians who qualify for unemployment benefits can receive as much as $926 a week through the end of July. By contrast, the average weekly wage for South Carolinians working in food preparation or service is $434, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And it’s not just the financial picture which has changed for many laid-off restaurant workers.

Freed from the punishing rhythms of a standard food-and-beverage schedule, they’ve discovered the pleasures of eating three square meals each day, going to bed before midnight and taking Sundays off. Although it certainly doesn’t hold true across the board, some hospitality professionals report drinking less and spending more time with friends and relatives in the wake of dining room closures.

“The silver lining for me is time with my wife and kids,” says Wild Common chef Orlando Pagan, who’s staying busy by perfecting his bread baking techniques and selling the results to neighbors. “We are creating new routines as a family.”

In other words, amid the most abnormal circumstances, furloughed food-and-beverage workers are leading what most Americans would consider normal lives. The good news for Charleston restaurant owners, though, is at least some of them say the mandated exercise in conventional behavior is a reminder of why they didn’t take that route in the first place.

“Everyone needed a break without realizing it,” theorizes Olivia McGougan, a runner at Wild Olive. “The restaurant industry is definitely tough physically and emotionally, but now that we’ve gotten this break, at the end of the day, this job is who we are. We can’t imagine doing anything else.”

McGougan was one of 39 restaurant workers who completed a survey designed by The Post and Courier to gauge local food-and-beverage employees’ attitudes toward going back to work. (Although the survey was anonymous, respondents could volunteer their names and contact information.)

While the survey was promoted through a spectrum of social media, the self-selected group of respondents it attracted was of course not perfectly representative of the Charleston area industry’s makeup. Additionally, the survey asked people to remember past feelings and speculate on future ones, which is far from a fail-safe method of determining anything.

Still, with so little information available at this juncture, it’s hard to resist noting that all but three of the 39 respondents said they were likely to return to their most recent restaurant jobs.

Survey says

A little more about those 39 survey takers:

An equal number of them identified as a bartender or server, together accounting for approximately half of the respondents; chefs, sous chefs and line cooks made up another 20 percent of the group. The average age of respondents was 32 years old, with nearly 13 years spent in the industry.

Nearly 90 percent of them worked for an independent restaurant or affiliate of a local restaurant group; 40 percent of them worked in downtown Charleston.

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Overall, the people who took the survey were relatively well paid, with an average weekly paycheck of $767 for roughly 36 hours on the clock, which works out to almost three times minimum wage.

Only one respondent cited pay as his or her least favorite part of the job: A line cook who reported earning $550 for a 60-hour workweek said, “The restaurant wants you to have decades of experience but they want to pay you like it's the '70s.”

More frequently, respondents said customers were the most troublesome component of restaurant work, with one-third of them calling patrons the single worst part of their job. Nearly as many respondents zeroed in on their schedule, lamenting late nights, long shifts and working holidays.

Yet they really like what they do. On a 10-point scale, with 1 defined as “on the brink of quitting” and 10 defined as “the best job I ever had,” the average level of satisfaction was 8.26.

Their happiness in quarantine doesn’t come close to that mark. Even though they’re cooking, baking, gardening, embroidering, walking, playing Scrabble, “fishing and drinking,” they rated their current life satisfaction at 4.82.

The reason might be embedded in the attributes of restaurant work they like best, including “teamwork,” “camaraderie,” “the feeling of being of service to people,” “the energy of a productive dinner service” and their co-workers, mentioned by almost one-quarter of respondents.

On another 10-point scale, with 10 signifying total certainty of sticking with their current or most recent restaurant job, the average response was 8.85.

“I will admit that it’s always tempting, every time I go a little while without working in a restaurant” to look for a different line of work, Caroline Jenkins, a cook at Early Bird Diner, said in a follow-up interview. “But ultimately, I find if you are a food-and-beverage person, it’s almost impossible to find anything that’s not F&B. Retail is really boring.”

Time's up

McGougan, the Wild Olive employee, went through the same decision-making process.

“There was a brief moment where I was like, ‘Maybe this is time for me to find a 9-5 job or start to have more of a set schedule,’” she says. “But when I really thought about it, I enjoy the restaurant.”

John Ondo, executive chef of The Atlantic Room at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, is sympathetic to those initial stirrings. He admits to slowing down when the property is cleared out by a mandatory hurricane evacuation order: Stationed at home, he likes to take a 3:30 p.m. nap.

“You get lulled into it,” he says. “Last year, after we took a little hurricane break, I was getting really tired in the afternoon. I needed my nap. But I think when this is over people are going to be so damn happy to work and needing to catch up, they’re going to be wanting to work 60 hours a week.”

Ondo’s confidence notwithstanding, Charleston area food-and-beverage business owners aren’t taking any chances.

Ed Westbrook of Westbrook Brewing on Monday broached the staffing issue during a virtual conversation between U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham and Lowcountry brewery owners. Following up on another brewer’s statement, Westbrook pointed out that collecting unemployment is a potentially more appealing proposition than hanging around a brewery which has drastically scaled back production.

Cunningham agreed that the Paycheck Protection Program should be adjusted so employers don’t have to rehire right away.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Why would a bartender or server come in to just look at empty tables when people aren’t coming out?”

In addition to seeking political help, business owners are striving to nourish relationships with workers once on their payrolls. Laid-off employees report their former bosses are texting them, calling them, inviting them to participate in group chats, messaging them on Facebook and hosting Zoom meetings.

Jenkins appreciates the effort.

“It’s not his fault he had to close up the restaurant,” she says of Early Bird’s owner. “It’s like when they’re loyal to you, you feel that, and you return that loyalty.”

That same team spirit is evident where McGougan works.

“Pretty much everyone I know is going to return back,” she says. “We’re all very excited: I think Charleston is going to come out stronger, bigger and better than ever.”

“Better” might ultimately mean saner schedules, Ondo suggests.

“I don’t think anyone should have to work 70 hours a week,” he says. “It’s too much physically and mentally; you’re not thinking straight, you’re not making the best decisions. Hopefully people in the future will realize they don’t have to work those hours.”

In short, he envisions the industry cultivating working conditions so bearable that restaurant owners wouldn’t have to worry about employees wanting to flee them.

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

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