Customer service suffers in understaffed restaurants as the Covid virus takes a heavy toll

A waiter works at a restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, on June 3, 2022.

Olivier Doolery | AFP | Getty Images

Jeff Rothenberg is used to long wait times in restaurants, even when tables are visibly open.

“We went to another restaurant that had open seating outside, but when we went to the host, they mentioned that the kitchen had a few employees,” Rothenberg, COO of a California-based fintech company, told CNBC. “So despite him being seated, he would have put us in a 30-minute queue to be seated.”

He said Rothenberg was on the 30-minute waiting list for nearly an hour. Then, after he was seated, he waited another 45 minutes for his food to arrive.

“It was the kind of experience that makes me not want to eat out,” he said. “I felt bad about the servers, because they were trying, but they couldn’t do much, and they don’t have enough chefs.”

It’s a scenario that’s been repeated across the foodservice industry since the COVID pandemic began in 2020, and it’s negatively impacting restaurants and their employees as well.

The shutdowns in the spring of that year laid off and furloughed many chefs and wait staff, prompting the federal government to subsidize billions of dollars in revocable loans for small businesses. The disease devastated the American workforce, killing more than 1 million people over two years or more, while sickening millions more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As states ease their restrictions, restaurant hiring has recovered, although the industry is still down 750,000 jobs – roughly 6.1% of its workforce – from pre-pandemic levels as of May, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Customers notice the difference. In the first quarter of 2022, customers mentioned three times more employees in Yelp reviews than in the same period last year, according to the restaurant review site. The reference to long waiting times increased by 23%.

“I think the experience has been different since Covid. I see the restaurant industry has changed a lot,” healthcare worker Neve Wright told CNBC outside Firebirds Wood Fired Grill in Eaton Town, New Jersey. “It wasn’t always like this – now it takes time, with expenses and staff shortages and everything.”

The US Customer Satisfaction Index found that consumers were less happy with fast-food chains this year than in 2021 — the sector’s score fell to 76 from 100, from 78. Customers were less satisfied with the speed and accuracy of their orders and about the cleanliness and design of the restaurant.

Customer satisfaction scores for independent and small restaurants also fell this year, to 80 from 100, from 81, according to ACSI’s annual report. Some national full-service chains saw larger declines in their scores over the year: Applebees from Dine Brands dropped 5%, Olive Garden from Darden restaurants 4%, and Buffalo Wild Wings from Inspire Brands dropped 3%.

“It’s all very strange”

Eatonton resident Teresa Berwiller said that over the past year, she has consistently encountered early closing times and long waits at restaurants, even when they are not busy.

“I’m 64, and I’ve never seen anything like this before,” the receptionist told CNBC Wednesday outside the local Chick-fil-A restaurant. “It’s all very strange. Covid has definitely changed the world, and I’m not sure what’s best.”

Restaurants aren’t the only companies seeing the employment crisis hit customer service. American consumer complaints against airlines more than quadrupled pre-pandemic levels in April, according to the Department of Transportation. Hotelier Hilton Worldwide CEO Christopher Nassetta said on the company’s quarterly earnings call in May that Hotelier Hilton Worldwide is not satisfied with its customer service and needs more workers.

For restaurants, staffing challenges have put pressure on an industry already struggling with inflation and recovering lost sales from the pandemic. Alexandria Restaurant Partners, a group that owns and operates eight restaurants across Florida and Northern Virginia, has dramatically changed the way it does business.

“We’re not sure where all the workforce has gone, but a lot of them have disappeared, from managers to chefs to dailies,” said Dave Nicholas, founding member of ARP.

A chef prepares food in the kitchens of Café Tu Tu Tango, a popular restaurant in Orlando, Florida.

Source: Alexandria Restaurant Partners

Nicholas said his focus now is on hiring and retaining. The group has opened a recruitment position and now has two full-time recruiters working to bring much-needed employees into jobs with higher pay and better benefits than the group has ever had.

“Before, you could hire them as fast as you needed to,” said Nicholas. “These days, that’s not the case.” “Our mission is to be the employer of choice. It comes with benefits we might not have had before, right down to the servers, the staff and the dishwashers. The cost of that was huge, but the cost of employee turnover is massive, so we weighed he-she.”

But not all workers get higher salaries home, even if their basic wages increase. Saru Jayaraman, director of the Center for Food Employment Research at UC Berkeley and chair of One Fair Wage, which advocates for inverted wages, said frustration with understaffing often leads to lower tipping for workers. In turn, lower wages cause many restaurant employees to quit, exacerbating the problem.

“It’s a vicious cycle of people being unhappy with a service that might tip lower, then not come back, and sales go down,” she said.

The restaurant industry has historically suffered from high turnover. The problem has only intensified during the Covid pandemic as employees seek better wages and working conditions, worry about illness, and struggle to find childcare. The smoking cessation rate in the accommodation and food service sectors was 5.7% in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nicholas said that while the ARP program recently introduced retention bonuses and partner programs, as well as increased pay and better benefits, it has been a “battle” to tackle the job market.

Full-service restaurants have been affected more than those with limited services by the employment crisis, with employment down 11% from pre-pandemic levels.

This means that your dining experience will never be the same anymore.

“Going to a restaurant and having them bring bread with butter, those days are gone,” said Nicholas Harari, owner of Barrel & Roost in Red Bank, New Jersey.

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