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Restaurants face staff shortages as diners return

For many local restaurants, business is back and booming, but they're having trouble getting staff back, too.

LAFAYETTE, Ind. — At the East End Grill in downtown Lafayette, business is back and it's booming.

"This time last year, we were closed," said owner Scott Trzaskus. "We're really excited to see people coming back out and seeing confidence in the industry (a year after the pandemic began)."

But servers have to be especially fast on their feet to keep up. That's because the restaurant is struggling with one key ingredient. 

"Staffing's a challenge," Trzaskus said. "I've never seen anything like this."

Longtime restaurant owners across the country say now that their establishments are open again, the customers are back. But many of those employees who were laid off last year in the pandemic — some 215,000 restaurant workers in Indiana alone — are nowhere to be found.

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"I've never seen a situation where we have zero people coming in from the street to fill out applications. It's just never happened," said Greg Emig, owner of Lafayette Brewing Company. "It's challenging. I mean when you don't have enough staff and then if somebody calls in sick ... and these days you can't question that."

Some call it a crisis. So much so, the chamber of commerce in Lafayette had planned a restaurant week this summer to promote the establishments and bring customers back.

But with those businesses stretched so thin on workers, the chamber hit the pause button and pivoted. It is instead launching a public awareness campaign to shine the spotlight on the need for workers.

It is a sign of the times for restaurants and other industries, too. In communities across the country, "now hiring" signs are impossible to miss. 

Nationwide, nearly 1 out of every 2 small businesses say they can't fill jobs — a record high for a third straight month, according to the National Federation of Independent Business.

"It's across the board. It's a lot of different industries," said Patrick Tamm, president and CEO of the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association. "People just experience it more in a restaurant. It's really painful for a lot of leaders in the restaurant industry ... You know that you have great customers and you want to serve them … and get the world back to (normal), but it's hard to do without enough employees."

"You're running short and ticket times get longer — those kind of things people don't like to deal with — so it creates issues with the guests, but it just is what it is," Emig said.

Industry experts blame it on several problems: childcare challenges in a field predominately occupied be female workers, employees who were laid off and then switched careers, and extended unemployment benefits.

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In the meantime, restaurant owners are doing what they can to make themselves stand out.

"We offer a nice environment. We offer a really nice benefits package," said Trzaskus, who also hired someone solely to handle employee recruitment for his two restaurants.

Owners are also searching for alternative solutions like technology that would let you order your own meal and pay by phone until they can get more workers to bite.

"I mean that's not the way we really want to go," Emig said. "I think dining out should be a little more of a personal experience. But if we don't have the staff, that becomes a problem."