On Chicago Avenue in downtown Evanston, a sign on the door says Peet’s Coffee will be closing early Thursday “due to the ongoing labor shortage.”
Right across the block, a “Help Wanted” sign adorns Tapas Barcelona restaurant.
Short walk to Davis Street, you’ll find that Next of Kin has closed permanently.
Up to Central Street, yet another place to eat, with fewer times available.
“Due to labor shortages,” says a sign at Pinto Thai, “we have some bad news. We have to close our dining room on Saturday and Sunday until we are fully staffed.”
Signs of the times, bad times indeed for restaurants. Hundreds of jobs in the hospitality industry are begging for workers, and the recent spike in COVID-19 is a big reason.
“There is a labor shortage EVERYWHERE, and it’s an issue,” emails Gina Speckman, Executive Director of Chicago’s North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Speckman says the omicron variant has delayed office reopenings in Evanston, so “the demand we hoped for in January did not pick up.”
“Labor issues + slow demand always in January + omicron has brought us dire circumtances,” she says.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau has an employment site, which currently shows 26 hospitality and related businesses hiring in Evanston, and 60 more similar businesses in nearby suburbs such as Skokie.
Many of the businesses have multiple openings.
Such is the case with Trattoria D.O.C. on Main Street, currently searching for servers, salad prep staff, line cooks, a pizza chef, and dishwashers.
Owner Guilianna Mazzochetti says there are “a lot of factors” for the shortage, but “definitely, COVID is one of them.”
Because of COVID, Mazzochetti says restaurant work is not a reliable way to earn a living.
“We barely have anoyone coming into the dining room,” she explains, which means fewer opportunities for tips, along with potential layoffs … a challenge when people are “looking for steady work.”
Mazzochetti says her entire pre-COVID wait staff has not come back, even those who had been there 15-20 years.
“None of them want to do this job any more,” she says.
Between worrying about masks, vaccinations, and having to deal with at least some unfriendly customers upset over the entire situation, being a server, she says, “is not fun.”
But still, Trattoria D.O.C. needs workers in order to stay in business, as do other restaurants, even if demand is down.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau does see a light at the end of the tunnel, a light which is not the proverbial onrushing train.
Executive director Speckman says the “dire circumstances” should be temporary.
She says there is a “srong interest” in the annual Restaurant Month beginning Feb. 1, with an increase in bookings. The startup of in-person classes at Northwestern on Jan. 18 should also bring more foot traffic to dining and drinking establishments.
The key to an improved hospitality business, and the ability to fill more job vacancies, is probably a lessening of the pandemic.
Speckman hopes the fast-rising omicron variant will soon see “a steep decline of cases, and then,” she says, “we can begin true recovery.”