Pure Heat

Chef Tim Wood stands in the middle of the main dining room at Woody’s Restaurant & Bar at the Monterey Regional Airport. Wood recently remodeled the dining room and is looking to hire more staff, for both the front and back of house.

On April 16, Ken Donkersloot, who last year bought Tarpy’s Roadhouse, Rio Grill and Montrio Bistro, made a job offer to a woman to work as an events coordinator at Tarpy’s and its parent company, Coastal Roots Hospitality.

That’s where things get dicey.

The offer was made in the morning. By the afternoon, the woman had options, in the form of an offer from a competing restaurant.

Donkersloot, co-owner of Coastal Roots along with his wife, Mona Calis, spends a great deal of time and energy examining his company’s benefits package and thinking about how to sweeten it to give their restaurants an edge. When he got the news of the competing offer, he sweated it for a few hours. (The woman, in the end, decided to come to Coastal Roots.)

“It’s very hard to secure people. You almost don’t want them to walk out the door without them signing an employment offer,” Donkersloot says. “It really is competitive. We’ve started to say, ‘Let’s put things in place that make people want to work for us.’”

Between Coastal Roots’ three restaurants, and between front of the house – servers, hostesses and such – and back of the house – line cooks, dish washers and such – Donkersloot has 10 positions to fill. He has a huge list of measures they’re using to sweeten the pot, including free telemedicine appointments for every employee; a flexible spending account to help employees pay health care costs; health care plans with varying employee contribution levels; paid language training courses – for any language, not just English – and an educational assistance program.

Meanwhile, Coastal Roots is also moving to a program in which kitchen workers, who normally don’t receive tips, are included in the tipping. The biggest challenge in hiring right now is in the kitchen – a peer in San Diego recently told Donkersloot they’re having to pay line cooks $18-$20 an hour, and Coastal Hospitality is already there.

It’s the lament heard around the county – and the country – right now. Last year, restaurateurs and their employees were hammered by pandemic closures. This year, as restaurants reopen for in-house dining, they’re hammered by a lack of employees.

Ted Balestreri Jr., vice president of hospitality at the Cannery Row Co. and a board member of the National Restaurant Association, describes a ripple effect that’s taking place, and will be for some time: Securing talent will cost more, and menu prices will increase because of the higher wages restaurants have to pay to secure that talent. Some restaurant workers who were furloughed will opt to remain on unemployment and some have left the industry altogether.

“Applicants are interviewing employers, asking, ‘Is this the environment I want to work in, and what’s the pay and benefits?’” Balestreri Jr. says. “The tables have turned now, and a big challenge as we ramp up for full capacity. Especially when events come back and banquets come back, we’ll need a bigger well to draw from.”

A fast perusal of ads in this paper alone have a dozen positions or so open in food and beverage operations at the Monterey Plaza. On the job website indeed.com, many of the job postings for Peninsula restaurants have the tagline “urgently hiring.”

Those workers who left the industry altogether may have been lured by lower-stress and similar or even higher wages at other jobs. Some, but not all, continue to collect higher amounts of unemployment, which the federal government used to incentivize people not to work during the pandemic and which will are set to continue through mid-September.

But as restaurant owners and managers share their tales of hiring woe, there’s legislation taking place at the county Board of Supervisors and in Sacramento aimed at ensuring those workers who were laid off due to the pandemic get invited back first.

Called “right to recall,” Gov. Gavin Newsom on April 16 signed an amendment to the state labor code that requires employers to offer laid-off employees specific information about jobs as they come open and to offer those jobs to said laid-off employees based on a preference system.

At the county level, meanwhile, District 1 Supervisor Luis Alejo introduced a county right to recall for restaurant and hospitality workers that could allow laid-off workers to sue in Superior Court if they’re passed over for re-hiring. On April 20, after hours of contentious discussion in which labor interests stood in direct opposition to business and hospitality industry interests, a much weaker ordinance passed 4-1, with Supervisor John Phillips opposed.

The employer lament is also strong at Bistro Moulin, Didier and Colleen Dutertre’s European-style bistro a block from Cannery Row. The couple – he’s the chef, she’s the operations director and wine manager – is losing their most experienced dishwasher because he’s being promoted at his other job. They also need bussers and waiters, but very few people are responding to their ads, and those who are responding either don’t have the level of experience they need to work in the front of the house, or they already have one or even two other jobs and can’t work many hours.

“Didier and I are exhausted and we can’t be open seven days a week. We’re limited by the physical capacity of how much we can work,” Colleen says. “It’s a big balancing act. But I have confidence. We’ve gotten through every challenge so far, and after a lengthy time of feeling like it’s the end and it’s not, you just go through.”

At Woody’s Restaurant & Bar, Chef Tim Wood’s newish restaurant at the Monterey Airport, he laughingly offers “a blanket statement that everyone is freaking the fuck out” about hiring. Wood opened during the pandemic and just finished remodeling the dining room, in the space formerly occupied by the Golden Tee. He needs to hire 10 people, from dishwashers and bussers to servers, and laments that he’s willing to work “double (shifts) in the kitchen to get more decent servers” hired.

“We feel there will be an influx of people when the dole gets cut off, but what we do know right now is it’s a buyer’s market,” Wood says, referencing enhanced unemployment benefits. “If the pandemic had lasted only two months, people would be back.

“But people have changed,” he adds. “It’s good money but it’s stressful and you sacrifice a lot of things in the restaurant industry and it messes with you being a normal human being. With the pandemic, people have gotten a taste of normalcy and looked at their budgets and if they’re getting by on less, they’ve decided to get by on less.”

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(2) comments

Esther Malkin

"The tables have turned." As if that's happened without warning! Affordable housing advocates have warned for years that this area can't function without these low wage workers that couldn't afford even prepandemic rents only to be ignored as their exodus was beginning.

As rents continue to rise with the escalating barrage of work from home urban escapees being the only ones that can afford them, maybe employers will pressure their fellow community business members in the property management industry to become part of the solution. They OWN thousands of units, not just manage mom & pops, therefore they manipulate the "market rate" with the help of the "unintended consequence" of Ab 1482. While the bill limits the maximum annual rent increases, which is btw much more than incomes increase annually, it incentivizes the frequent turnover of rentals as the only time allowed to completely reset the rates without limits. It went into effect just in time of the pandemic's start.

Hopefully now workers aka renters, who are the majority of residents, will be valued more as employers get a taste of financial desperation too. Not so fun on the other side of the table, is it?

Affordable housing has not been taken seriously enough in this century under the guise of it being solvable only as a supply & demand issue which is as outdated as the trickle down theory. Affordable housing is a human right that must be addressed alongside income inequality & social justice to lure & retain workers needed for a region to function sustainably.

- Esther Malkin

#RentersVote

Marilyn Galli

The long term pandemic changed everything that people worked so hard for. It changed our right to live free and people settled for security over liberty. It destroyed our strength and unity in numbers. I look at our community different than I used to.

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