Amid worker shortage, Cloquet businesses struggle to find experienced applicants
Local businesses face a range of struggles in the current economic climate. One problem a few business owners reported was a lack of experienced candidates for open positions.
CLOQUET — Carlton County isn't exempt from the workforce shortages that are present across the state and country, with some business owners struggling to find experienced labor.
Ryan Lindstrom, co-owner of Carmen's Bar & Restaurant, said he has seen a shortage of applicants, but also a drop in more qualified candidates.
"In general it is harder to find people in the kitchen," he said. "Every owner I talk to, kitchen help is the hardest to find."
Lindstrom said it is normally harder to find kitchen staff, but this year it has been amplified.
Carlton County currently has an unemployment rate of 4.5%, 1.5 percentage points higher than the state rate of 3%, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
The local unemployment statistics for December 2022 show Carlton County has a labor force of 17,442, with 16,656 people currently employed.
The roles have reversed for Lindstrom and other business owners he has talked to, as he needs to be back in the kitchen rather than out front interacting with customers.
At Carmen's, that does not stop at just the owners.
"Every one of my bartenders has gone back and been in the dish bin or been that extra hand," he said. "One of my bar managers went from being a full-time bartender to working probably equal parts in the kitchen and in the bar."
One avenue Lindstrom has used is accepting more student workers or younger employees, something he doesn't mind since he and his brother, who co-owns the restaurant with him, used to coach in Cloquet. The change this year is that the younger employees, who used to be focused purely on dishes or filling up ice buckets, are now given more responsibility.
However, Lindstrom said one problem with hiring students is that it could be their first job ever and working in the kitchen comes with a lot of responsibility and training, which takes time. There are also some restrictions in place depending on an employee's age, with those 16 and under not allowed to work with knives, the slicer or with alcohol.
Heather's Cafe in Cloquet has also struggled to find cooks. Owner Heather Gist said the post-COVID time has brought numerous challenges for her as a business owner.
With just two cooks available to work, Gist decided to close the restaurant two days a week. Instead of being open every day, they are only open five.
"I couldn't physically do it anymore working six, seven days a week ... my staff too ... was getting burnt out," she said. "Everybody wants to serve, but nobody wants to cook."
Compared to serving, Gist said cooking can be more taxing, and tough on employees who are under pressure and have to multi-task, which is why she thinks there has been a lack of interest in the position.
Gist echoed Lindstrom's comments about training a cook. She said it can take time, and roughly up to six weeks at Heather's, depending on the person. There have been instances where Gist has started training someone who then decided that being a cook was not for them.
Gist is looking to hire another cook over the summer to get Heather's open seven days a week.
Inflation driving up prices also makes it difficult to add more benefits to attract workers, as Gist said she has to balance the cost of her goods, employee wages and the cost of items on her menu.
One person who helps Gist a lot is her husband, who steps in when Gist has been sick or helps out when the cafe is busy.
Some businesses aren't facing workforce issues
Not all businesses in the area are facing the same strains. The owners of Mike's Cafe & Pizzeria in Esko and Bearaboo Coffee Escape in Cloquet have not had issues attracting workers in the past year.
Andrea King, one of the owners at Mike's, said she feels pretty lucky that Mike's does not currently have issues finding employees. Unlike Heather's and Carmen's, King said the people she hired in the past have not had any prior experience, and her father, who is a co-owner, is the only grill cook.
"Everybody that has worked here has not had any kitchen experience, other than my dad," she said.
Mike's currently has three high school seniors on staff who are moving away, so King said she will have to fill those positions when they leave.
Natalie Swanson, owner of Bearaboo, shared that she has not seen staffing issues. With her husband, Chris, being a high school teacher he has connections to high-school age students looking for work.
"My kids are students also, so they know a lot of people," she said.
Swanson is also from Cloquet, and she said that community knowledge has helped her business.
"Whenever we have needed someone we have people in our back pocket," she said. "So I have not really had any trouble staffing."
Unlike other businesses looking for experienced workers, Swanson said when hiring new employees she looks at an applicant's "people skills" — they are able to work on the rest of the necessary skills needed.
Some businesses in town, like Super One Foods, have actually seen an increase in applicants as of late. Store manager Bob Waltenburg said part of the reason for the increase may be from the store using more hiring sites to attract workers.
"We actually get a diverse group ... we get a lot of middle-aged people that apply," he said.
Looking to adapt
Owners are planning and looking at areas where they can attract more applicants.
Gist said she is looking to hire some students over the summer, a dishwasher and cook, to alleviate the current workload on her staff and reopen the cafe seven days a week.
Carmen's will undergo a kitchen renovation in the spring, something Lindstrom said had been in the works since before the pandemic. He hopes the upgrades will help create a better working environment.
"With us being Ma & Pa, you lose some of your help to other jobs that can offer benefits," he said. "We can't really compete with some of the bigger box stores with stuff like that."
Competing against larger national or regional companies when it comes to benefits can be difficult, but Lindstrom said he is working on offering a retirement plan to full-time employees through his bank, which he hopes will be another draw for workers.
"We are always looking to add those elements," he said.