Editor’s note: This article was updated Nov. 1, 2021, to correct the last name of the co-owner of Bad Biscuit Co.
The cafe at Folino Estate Winery in Greenwich Township is the type of restaurant where you usually want to have a reservation during peak hours.
Parties often consist of couples on dates, groups of friends enjoying a night out, and large family gatherings. Guests order vino for the table and dine on high-end Italian cuisine, often sticking around for coffee and dessert.
It’s the kind of trendy establishment where servers can earn hundreds of dollars in tips on a busy night.
Except Folino Estate’s cafe is closed due to an all-too-common problem in the restaurant industry: a lack of workers.
The tasting room and gift shop are open for business. The kitchen is still serving up light fare such as pizza and gelato, and the dining room reopens sporadically or plays host to special events.
Everyday sit-down meal service, however, is suspended.
As restaurants all over Berks County seek to combat the ongoing staffing crunch, some, like Folino Estate, are trying a novel approach in an effort to hire more workers.
They’re paying higher wages.
The results so far are varied, however, as the labor crisis impacting most every industry across the U.S. — but especially the hospitality sector — remains a puzzle with no singular cause or solution.
Critics of expanded employment benefits that were put in place due to COVID-19 insisted, for example, that worker shortages would ease when the program ended in September.
Yet, many restaurant owners and management complain they haven’t noticed a dramatic change in the number of people looking for jobs in the last two months compared to earlier in the pandemic.
“No, no no,” said Stephanie Fister, manager of human resources for MAF Hospitality, which operates Vintner’s Table in Phoenixville, Chester County, in addition to Folino Estate Winery. “We have not seen an increase or influx of applicants. I was hopeful, but I have not seen an influx.
“And I don’t know where the people went.”
It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Michael O’Brien, owner of the popular breakfast and brunch spot Bad Biscuit Co. in Lower Alsace Township.
“I’ve had one guy since that (expanded unemployment) stopped come in for a dishwasher job,” O’Brien said. “That’s it. We’ve had feelers out and nothing.
“My question is what are they doing? Because everybody is looking for help. Where are they?”
Speculation as to the missing workforce’s whereabouts is endless, and it seems there is no one answer.
Child care may have played a role in some parents’ decisions to stay home, though schools and day cares have since reopened and the economy is growing again.
There’s a reported rise in the number of workers engaging in some form of self-employment, whether that’s starting a business, entering the gig economy, selling or reselling goods online, or even creating content for websites such as YouTube and Twitch.
A portion are either living with or caring for somebody or are themselves immunocompromised and cannot safely hold a job with any regular exposure to the public during a pandemic.
And there are those who harbor a belief that, after nearly a year-and-a-half of hunkering down in their homes, some folks are afraid to or simply don’t want to go back to work.
Whatever the case, it’s not as if restaurants haven’t tried throwing the kitchen sink at the problem.
Since Bad Biscuit opened in April, it has attempted to entice servers with a wage of $4 per hour — over $1 more than the $2.83 minimum for tipped workers in Pennsylvania.
O’Brien says they got lucky and successfully hired a trio of high school students, one of whom is still employed at the restaurant. Eventually, they were also able to lure a veteran server away from a nearby competitor.
He said she makes $500 to $600 a week in tips, working 30 to 35 hours.
“We could actually use more,” he said. “We would like to have a hostess. We need another barista — but these kids come in, they worked at Starbucks for five minutes and they want $25 an hour. I can’t give you that.”
Folino Estate had been working through its staffing shortage but was finally forced to suspend regular dining operations in September when, seven miles away, Kutztown University resumed classes. Fister estimated 35 student-employees left to focus on their studies.
The restaurant has tried everything to bring them back, from raising wages — “wine educators” start at $15 an hour — to offering paid time off and other benefits. Fister has also attended college job fairs and even looked into contracting a bus that could transport students back and forth from campus to their job.
Of course, bus drivers are in short supply these days, too.
“We had the mindset of how can we get college students back here to work,” Fister said. “I just don’t know if the work ethic changed, if the pandemic put fear in people, if parents of college students are maybe figuring it out (financially) for them.
“We have wonderful staff members here who work very hard. I hope that it gets better soon.”
Fister noted Folino Estate has been getting some applications and is continuing to hire in the hopes of resuming dining service in early December.
Meanwhile, in Exeter Township, the Stonersville Hotel is in the process of gradually reopening under new ownership and has managed to fill all of its positions.
“We are pleased to announce that our employment offers have been accepted,” reads a post on the restaurant’s social media. “Don’t believe it when they say that ‘no one wants to work,’ the workers know their value and want to be paid appropriately for their time.”
Operating partner Raymond Keely chose not to disclose the starting wage at the Stonersville Hotel, describing the salary as experimental, but revealed with tip sharing, average take-home pay for employees 18 and older would be significantly above $15 per hour.
This was not strictly in response to the labor shortage, either. He stressed that paying employees a living wage was always part of the plan when the new ownership group purchased the Stonersville Hotel this year.
“We realized the restaurant industry has to make these changes as far as paying fair labor wages and getting away from a tip-based infrastructure,” Keely said.
“If you’re not gonna make changes and experiment now, when are you gonna do it? Because the industry has changed.”
Keely said that, in addition to being exploitative, the history of the tipped minimum wage is rooted in the racist principles of the Jim Crow era.
“It’s been toxic,” he said. “As business owners, we shouldn’t be expecting operating models to be based on: ‘If the customers really like my employees, then they can pay them. I’m not going to.’
“That’s not a way to run a business regardless of what time we’re in.”
All that may be true, but Keely acknowledged the wages at Stonersville Hotel aren’t solely responsible for the restaurant’s successful round of hiring. Being new was also a natural draw for workers seeking to get in on the ground floor of a venture.
But when the time to discuss compensation happened, it was a game changer.
“A lot of folks didn’t know we were kind of changing the labor model here,” Keely said. “People were coming in expecting to be paid in accordance with other restaurants and were kind of surprised.
“It was nice from a hiring standpoint. All of a sudden, it went from, ‘This is just a job,’ to ‘Oh, what else are you guys doing different that’s allowing this to go on here?’ ”
Stonersville Hotel is different from a lot of its competition in that it has its own farm, which should help it cut down on food costs substantially.
Most restaurants lack such an advantage or anything comparable, so paying a similar wage comes with other trade-offs or simply isn’t possible.
At Bad Biscuit, a smaller establishment that doesn’t have alcohol sales to persuade guests to sit longer and boost check totals, even raising the hourly rate by $1 adds up quickly.
“I can’t afford to go higher than that,” O’Brien said. “My payroll already every two weeks is like $4,200 for this little joint. And that’s not including me. I couldn’t even take a check this week because I’m not putting me in front of the employees.
“We’re doing well. It was just a tough week. These bills all came at the same time.”
At Folino Estate, the cost of paying higher wages will be passed on to the customer in part through a 20% service charge.
Even then, Fister laments that there are some perks even a larger restaurant and winery can’t offer that huge corporations in other industries are using to incentivize workers.
“How do we compete with Amazon, who’s paying for college tuition for their employees?” she asked. “As a small business, we can’t pay for tuition.”
For Keely’s part, while he and his partners have crunched the numbers, they don’t know for a fact that paying the kind of wages Stonersville Hotel is offering will be sustainable in the long run, or that hiring will remain strong six months from now once hours expand and the newness fades.
That being said, he views the dilemma of getting people to want to work in restaurants again as more of a self-fulfilling prophecy and fully within proprietors’ power control.
“Some of that means ownership and investors can’t take predatory chunks of capital from the business,” Keely said. “Unfortunately, in this industry, that’s been for too long the case.
“Hopefully it works for us and we can show other restaurants in the area, ‘Hey, we can do this,’ and it’s not this narrative that all of this is gonna get passed on to consumer. That’s only true if you’re dealing with folks trying to take money out of the business instead of making it an investment in the community and for the community.”
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Some Berks restaurants tempt workers with higher pay, to mixed results – Reading Eagle