Hunger Pains: The Labor Shortage Impact on Charlotte’s Dining Scene

Prices are high, and service is strapped. What does the strain on restaurant labor mean for Charlotte’s dining scene?
Photo illustration/shutterstock

On Sunday mornings in South End, clusters of people gather outside Snooze, an A.M. Eatery, sometimes waiting an hour or more to be seated for brunch. Several places nearby serve brunch, too. Ruby Sunshine, Eight + Sand Kitchen, STIR, Early Girl Eatery, and Link & Pin all have similar wait times, and not because every table is full. Often, they’re short-staffed and can’t keep up with the volume of hungry customers.

At Eight + Sand, employees perform multiple duties. Line cooks pack to-go orders for Postmates drivers. Cashiers put cinnamon rolls and cruffins in plastic takeout containers while customers sign the Square Stand. The general manager assists baristas by bringing them drink tickets, putting lids on coffee cups, and sanitizing the portafilter. Front-of-house and back-of-house tasks aren’t always separate, either. A pastry chef might deliver a plate of biscuits or bread while it’s still warm, and food runners clean baking equipment if the kitchen gets backed up.

It’s a late Sunday morning in March, and the GM asks a crowd of about 30 at the register to form a line outside. It snakes around the menu stand, out the door, and down the sidewalk. Eight tables sit unoccupied; the dining room is too crowded with customers waiting to be seated. The GM opens the second register to move things along, but when the baristas get backed up again, he abandons his post to help them. Customers continue to scroll their phones, bump to the electronic dance music, and debate whether to get the Matcha Latte or Updog Kombucha with their French Toast. Nobody complains.

In the last three years, diners have grown accustomed to seeing “help wanted” signs in restaurant windows, and they’ve learned to anticipate longer wait times, limited menus, and a reduced number of tables. The cost of eating out has increased, and restaurants are operating with less people sourcing, cooking, and serving those meals.

It doesn’t change the fact that people love restaurants. But diners are often unaware of the chaos happening behind those swinging doors. Service workers have more leverage than ever, and with the rising cost of living in Charlotte, they’re inclined to snatch the most lucrative jobs available. Many have moved on to other lines of work, though, because even elevated wages often aren’t enough.

The nationwide labor shortage has crippled the hospitality industry, and in Charlotte, it threatens the growth of a city just starting to develop a food scene. Carpe Diem and The Stanley were casualties of COVID. The BayHaven Restaurant Group, whose restaurant portfolio includes Leah & Louise, scrapped plans to open four new food ventures at Camp North End, citing the changing economic climate and construction costs.

Even established restaurant groups like Noble Food and Pursuits, Rare Roots Hospitality, and The Indigo Road have been stretched thin. But they have financial reserves, and they’ve been able to adapt. Now the question becomes: Will they be able to sustain our momentum as an emerging food scene?

Updated Snooze

At Snooze, an A.M. Eatery, on South Boulevard, weekend patrons often wait an hour or more for tables. Photo by HERMAN NICHOLSON

Independent restaurants and bars employ 11 million workers nationwide. Five million more work in the industry’s vast supply chains and rely on restaurants and bars to sustain their businesses. North Carolina is home to nearly 20,000 restaurants and bars, and the Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates 76% of those are independently owned. According to the National Restaurant Association, food service jobs in North Carolina accounted for 10% of the state’s employment in 2021.

As an industry that attracts and relies on temporary and part-time workers, restaurants will always experience high turnover. Food service is often the default for students who need summer jobs or folks who want to earn extra money. A 2022 survey by 7shifts, a team management software designed for restaurants, found the average tenure of a restaurant employee is 110 days. In North Carolina, the turnover rate between August 2021 and August 2022 was 47.76%. 

It’s harder to track those numbers on a local level, but when we lose iconic restaurants like Zack’s Hamburgers, Price’s Chicken Coop, and Mr. K’s in a span of six months, it’s clear Charlotte has felt the strain. Price’s cited “the labor shortage, rising food costs, food quality, and another coin shortage,” when they announced their closing in June 2021. It’s become a familiar trend throughout the industry.

“It’s a complicated conundrum,” says Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. “The labor shortage has been happening for years. COVID just exacerbated the problem.”

NCRLA is a membership-based trade association that advocates for restaurants and hotels at the state and national level. “During COVID, our role was much more visible,” Minges says. “We were on the phone with Governor Cooper’s senior leadership team almost every day about executive orders and their effect on the industry. Membership was up 10%.”

On March 17, 2020, the hospitality industry displaced half its workforce. After the eight-week shutdown, restaurant owners and operators struggled to hire workers back. Trump-era immigration restrictions hurt, too: Before March 2020, immigrants made up 28.7% of workers in the U.S. food processing industry.

“It shed a light on the truth of what food service is in this country,” says Jen Hidinger-Kendrick, co-founder and senior director of community engagement at Giving Kitchen, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that focuses on restaurant workers in the southeast. Since 2013, GK has provided emergency assistance to more than 12,000 food service workers and awarded more than $8.1 million in financial assistance. Cases might include unexpected crises like illness, death of an immediate family member, a housing disaster—anything that prevents a food service worker from reporting to work for an extended period. GK covers rent, mortgage, and other living expenses.

“Day in and day out, this sector really shows up in people’s lives,” Hidinger-Kendrick says. “This is an industry that is leading in suicide and substance abuse. Oftentimes, you’re asked to check your feelings at the door and present yourself as positive. These are people who add value to our lives. That’s who we are helping—those who show up to work and help our economy.

 “We know what the food service population looks like, and 1 to 2% will be in crisis in any given year based on those numbers,” she adds. “Charlotte directly correlates to our learnings in Atlanta.”

Servers and line cooks occupy low rungs on the ladder, but a restaurant’s ability to operate hinges on their ability to show up to work. “Fifty-two percent of restaurants and hotels are telling us they’ve scaled back business in some way,” Minges says. Many have removed some tables from their restaurants, while others have opted to close one or two days a week or stop lunch service. “Until we can get the workforce back,” she says, “it’s keeping many restaurants from operating at full capacity.”

Now, some operators are recruiting beyond their typical demographics and looking at 16- to 24-year-olds who aren’t in school, or people who are formerly incarcerated or recovering from drug addiction. “We’re also focused on offering credentials and certifications that allow people to move up to manager or regional manager in a short period of time, and provide free training and apprenticeships,” Minges says. “We’ve all realized that we have to pay better wages and offer benefits anywhere we can.”

The national minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. For tipped workers, the base amount is $2.13, unchanged since 1991, on the assumption that tips will make up the difference; if they don’t, North Carolina law requires employers to pay workers enough to reach $7.25 an hour. Either way, that’s no longer enough to attract and keep food service workers.

“Wages are at an all-time high in our industry,” Minges says. “Every restaurant and hotel is paying significantly higher than pre-COVID wages. Many start workers at $15 an hour, even 16-year-olds. That’s more than twice as much as pre-COVID. We’re seeing signing bonuses, paid leave … things that help demonstrate support for people who work in this industry.”

It’s good news for servers trying to keep up with the cost of living, and it’s put a renewed focus on minimum wage for hourly workers and employee benefits. But it also puts additional strain on restaurant operators, and it’s had a complicated effect on the employer-employee power dynamic.

Tricia and Ken Martino opened Osteria LuCa in January 2020 with a solid team in place. For the next six weeks, their Italian restaurant in Park Road Shopping Center was booked. During lockdown, they were able to pay most of their 45 employees with cash reserves. About 85% of their staff came back when they reopened in May.

But they struggled to fill the open positions—and pay their existing employees enough to stay. “We felt it worse in the kitchen than in front-of-house,” Ken says. “You almost couldn’t let somebody walk out the door without a job, because somebody down the street would hire them.”

Charlotte, Nc March 14th Tricia And Ken Martino At Osteria Luca. Food The Whipped Ricotta, True Meatballs With Marinara Sauce Prosciutto Di Parma With Arugula, Shaved Parmesan, Fig Spread, And Balsamic Glaze Pizza, Bucatini Amatriciana, Bread Puddin

Osteria LuCa opened at Park Road Shopping Center in January 2020, just before COVID lockdown. Owners Tricia and Ken Martino reopened in May 2020 but struggled to pay enough to fill open positions, and the restaurant wasn’t fully staffed for another year. Photo by Peter Taylor

As owners, Tricia says they always had the upper hand. “But now, (job applicants) were in control,” she says. “They could say, ‘These are my hours,’ or ‘I want this wage.’ Some kitchen workers started asking for a ridiculous amount of money to come back. It was an advantage-taking ploy. We were already damaged as a new restaurant, so it was a slap in the face. They wanted New York pay in Charlotte.”

When they first opened, the Martinos’ highest-paid line cook was $15 an hour, and entrées were all less than $30. Three years later, they’ve raised wages across the board, and entrée prices top out around $35. “The whole labor model changed,” Ken says. “We’re fully staffed now, but it took a while. It was probably mid-2021 for the kitchen to fully come back.”

Frank Scibelli, a longtime Charlotte restaurateur and owner of FS Food Group, fared better than most operators during the pandemic, but he hasn’t been immune to the labor shortage. “Servers that used to work six to eight shifts (per week) are now working four to six,” he says.“That’s an outcome of COVID. People rethought how they want to live their lives. A lot of people got out of the restaurant business or toned down how much they want to work.”

Scibelli, who employs more than 1,000 workers at 13 restaurants (with four more planned in 2023), starts servers at $2.13 per hour—but with tips, they make between $20 and $40. He says it’s not uncommon for his servers to make $400 a night. “Some make $75,000 a year,” he says. “They’re making enough money that they can work four to five shifts a week.” 

Despite his wage hikes, Scibelli says he’s had to cast a wider net to keep his restaurants staffed. “We have two full-time recruiters working for us now to find that talent we want,” he says. “We just hired a good Tex-Mex chef from El Paso for Paco’s (Tacos & Tequila), and are looking elsewhere. Other parts of the country are not as economically stable, so we’re taking advantage of that and getting more people to move to Charlotte.”

But that’s only part of the equation. With the rising cost of food and supplies, Scibelli’s had to simplify dishes and run specials that decrease the workload of his staff. His “A-team” typically works busier shifts, but on a given weekday, he doesn’t always have someone with the institutional memory to know how a certain dish is plated—and higher food costs force him to raise prices for consumers. “Lettuce was through the roof, then eggs were through the roof, and now avocados are supposed to go through the roof,” he says. “Maybe we limit guacamole at Midwood Smokehouse, but we always have to have it at Paco’s. Maybe we bump the price of a salad with avocados or just omit it for a while.”

It hasn’t stopped him from expanding. He opened his first Midwood Smokehouse in Raleigh in February and plans to open another at Charlotte Douglas International Airport this year. “I’ve networked with other operators in other parts of the country, and I don’t think what we have is that unique,” he says. “Everyone’s paying a lot more in wages. The challenge is finding talent.”

As of January 2023, the restaurant labor force is still more than 450,000 jobs below pre-pandemic levels, marking the largest employment deficit among all U.S. industries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A November 2022 survey by the National Restaurant Association found that 63% of full-service restaurants and 61% of limited-service places operate with fewer employees than they need to accommodate guests.

Some restaurants have turned to self-pour taprooms or QR-code ordering systems that eliminate the need for servers. Still, most struggle to hire and retain actual humans as they recover from the pandemic. Those that have kept their doors open and tables booked recognize that higher wages and more benefits can lead to higher retention rates and lower training costs.

Has this labor shortage stunted Charlotte’s growth or held us back as an emerging food scene? It depends on who you ask. The lack of workers has grounded many operators before they could take off. For those that have established brands and financial means, it’s certainly hindered their ability to operate, grow, and make changes.

In the Martinos’ case, it hasn’t discouraged them from trying to make Charlotte a culinary city. “We moved to Charlotte in 2012 from New York, and we felt Charlotte was an emerging dining scene at that point,” Ken says. “We still feel like Charlotte is emerging but hasn’t totally emerged. We’re not quite on the level of Charleston, Asheville, or Greenville. Our culinary scene is starting to come. But this definitely set us back.”

TAYLOR BOWLER is the lifestyle editor.

Categories: Food + Drink, The Buzz