First Toilet Paper, Now People?

Employees at Culhane's / Molly Britt

For local restaurants, recovery includes coming to terms with a new service economy. 

“It’s devastating because we want to be busy but we just don’t have the manpower to stay open later and get the food out fast enough,” said owner and operator Mary Jane Culhane. Culhane own’s Culhane’s Irish Pubs located in Atlantic Beach and Southside and 5 Sisters Spirit Vodka based in Atlantic Beach. She, among many other restaurant owners in the Jacksonville area, are facing a major shortage in staff. 

Culhane has been making an effort to hire more staff for the past six months, spending lots of time and money using online hiring services. While advertising that they are hiring costs up to $500 a week, it seems to be the best option for finding professional chefs and experienced managers after expressing they’ve shifted their focus towards hiring more “mature” chefs and “seasoned” managers.

The shortage does have repercussions on those currently working in the restaurant industry. According to Culhane, their staffing numbers have decreased by 25% in these last few months. They are among the many restaurants that have had to change their hours of operation by closing during lunch hours and dismissing late night hours as a result of their staffing shortage.

“We used to keep the kitchen open until midnight, but we’ve stopped serving food and closed the kitchen down at 10 p.m.,” says Culhane. The general manager of Burrito Gallery Downtown, Jennifer Lee, has faced similar difficulties. “There were literally four of us holding the restaurant together,” she said. Fortunately, Lee has been able to hire a full staff since then but the struggle to find “individuals who actually care about the job and performance” was something she faced often.

When asked what the biggest struggle was in relation to the hiring difficulty and shortage, Culhane said “service; stress of the customer waiting longer times and trying to explain that to them.” She goes on to say, “you don’t want to tell them your problems, but if you’re being up front saying ‘we’re going to have a 40-minute wait tonight because I just don’t have the manpower,’ I think if you’re up front it’s better than just letting them sit there and wonder why.” 

In an effort to avoid blindsiding the customers on the extra long waits and service quality, signs and notices have been put up at entrances apologizing for the wait due to shortages of staff and even food. Culhane was taken by surprise when they began facing difficulty ordering things ranging from chicken to certain kinds of beer. With less employees, the manufacturing of certain products has decreased as a response and as a direct result, pricing on products like food has increased. Culhane’s local bakery is one example, with their prices increasing 10% every time she’s there. “We’re paying more for stuff, and we’re paying more for product, and unfortunately the consumer is going to have to be the one to pay,” expressed Culhane on the concern that restaurant prices will be forced to increase as a result. Restaurants are not alone in facing these issues, however. 5 Sisters Spirit Vodka is facing shortage issues, too. After becoming aware of a shortage in glass, the company redesigned and relabeled their bottles so that they could continue providing products to their customers. 

In addition to paying more, Culhane has had to increase wait times. With a 350-seat restaurant at their Southside location, there is not enough manpower to fill every seat while ensuring the customer gets their food within a 20-minute turn-time. As a way to decrease servers’ stress and ensure quality for the customer, they have had to place holds at the door, offering up to hour-long wait times for parties. Culhane has gone as far as  to cancel any third-party delivery services, which in turn is “hurting [them] because that’s another avenue to increase your sales, but you have to be mindful of the guest that walks in for the experience.”

With so many restaurants experiencing the same issues, many have made efforts to better the stressful environment for their employees. Culhane was able to “reinvent how [they] hire” by using hiring services and word of mouth to hire more experienced managers who are now being paid salary and being given benefits, such as paid vacation. Other restaurants, like Burrito Gallery have had a bit more luck in the hiring department lately. Lee said they now have 13 employees. In their own effort to better their morale they have improved the company compensation package. 

While some restaurants seem to be faring better than others during the staffing shortage, it is clear that the restaurant industry has a way to go before they can get comfortable. After a shortage of staff has led to food shortages, glass shortages, and high stress environments, these restaurant owners’ goals don’t seem too far fetched. Culhane’s main goal is to be fully staffed by the middle of July with experienced workers who put in good effort. “We care. We’re known to be a family business and that’s big for us,” expressed Mary Jane Culhane. Meanwhile, Lee hopes that “everything is moving forward to provide a fun, relaxing place for our guests.” After all the stress the shortage brought on owners, operators, and employees, they just hope to create a comfortable environment, not only for their guests, but for the staff as well.

About Molly Britt

Molly Britt is a multimedia journalist with Folio Weekly, as well as an account executive. As a Jax Beach local and University of North Florida graduate, she is familiar with all things Duval and Northeast Florida. She enjoys investigative journalism and interviews, using her platform to educate and inform the local community with her words. While at Folio, Britt has enjoyed interviews with the likes of Robby Takac of the Goo Goo Dolls and local small businesses such as Femme Fire Books.