Extensive labor shortages experienced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have left some Cloquet area restaurants extremely short-handed, forcing changes in operations and reduced hours.
On Monday, June 7, a handful of restaurants took to social media to announce impending changes, with Family Tradition Restaurant in Cloquet and the Rendezvous Sports Bar and Grill in Scanlon closing their doors on Mondays, while Carmen’s Bar and Restaurant in Cloquet has said they will end one of their special promotions.
"We appreciate how hard our current staff is working and we are thankful to our customers for keeping us busy," the owners of Family Tradition posted on Facebook. "We are still hiring cooks. Please stop in and apply if interested."
The owners of Rendezvous also encouraged people in the community to apply, explaining that kitchen employees are the most needed.
Since posting the message, owner Ross Swanstrom said he has seen an outpouring of support from the community, along with a handful of applications — although more are still needed.
“We just don’t have the bodies," he said.
After an unprecedented volume of business during the pandemic, he is prepared for this summer to be the busiest yet. According to Swanstrom, the Rendezvous is down to three cooks and zero dishwashers, meaning that the current kitchen employees work every day that the restaurant is open.
“It’s a lot of work in the kitchen," he said. “It’s stressful, it’s hot ... They just need a day off.”
In an effort to increase interest, the Rendezvous has upped its starting wage for line cooks to $18 an hour, in addition to raising the wage for existing kitchen staff.
Ryan Lindstrom, co-owner of Carmen’s Bar and Restaurant, also said kitchen employees have been the hardest to find, especially younger workers.
Because of the labor shortage, Carmen's had to end their popular two-for-one burger deals on Tuesdays.
“That’s definitely one of those specials that are good for our customers,” Lindstrom said. “You get a good crowd of people in here, but we just can’t keep up. It’s either we keep doing the deal and people wait 40-45 minutes to get their food, or we stop doing it and we just try to maintain good service.”
Carmen’s is also being forced to scale back the new menu that was introduced a couple months ago. When the menu first came out, Lindstrom said they had four or five cooks working. However, the menu had some more “elaborate dishes” and now there is only one full time cook. Currently, he and co-owner Zach Zezulka are regularly working in the kitchen in addition to their roles managing the restaurant.
Lindstrom and Zezulka aren't the only owners rolling up their sleeves. Swanstrom said he and his two daughters each average over 100 hours of work per week, while Pedro's Grill & Cantina owner Erika Aranda shared that she also expects to spend a lot of time in the kitchen this summer.
Although Aranda has been able to avoid losing staff or reducing Pedro's hours, she said overtime pay and rising food costs are impacting her bottom line.
According to Swanstom, the cost for certain menu items have gone up as much as 30% in the last week, which means he will have to increase menu prices — a change that will roll out sometime next week.
“It’s all just outrageous and … I can’t move my menu fast enough to keep up," he said.
When asked to speculate on why labor shortages have become an issue, Swanstrom said that it was likely due to higher unemployment benefits during the pandemic and the amount of work that goes into being a restaurant employee, while Lindstrom guessed that there might be other factors at play.
“When the government assistance goes away, that could help, but is it a guarantee? No,” Lindstrom said. “There are other reasons people aren’t out here. Maybe some people still have fears of all the COVID stuff, that’s still not completely over.”
If the labor shortages continue, Swanstrom said the Rendezvous may be forced to close on Tuesdays as well. He said the decision to close on days early in the week is because those are the slowest for business.