On March 17, Riverside County at long last moved into the less-restrictive COVID-19 “red tier”—meaning Coachella Valley restaurants could again open for indoor dining, at 25 percent capacity.
However, this wasn’t necessarily an economic boon at all restaurants—because some of them are having difficulty finding enough employees to even handle outdoor dining.
“There are a whole variety of issues,” said Dean Lavine, the owner of Blackbook bar and restaurant on Arenas Road in Palm Springs, during a recent phone interview. “We have issues with getting product. You know, other industries are having distribution problems, and that affects our industry.
“We have issues with hiring people. The talent pool is not as deep as it was before the pandemic, and there could be numerous reasons for that. I’ve heard that people (in the service industry) have moved away during the pandemic to other states that weren’t as locked down. Also, stimulus money and unemployment money are keeping a lot of people on the sidelines. For instance, I regularly get EDD (Employment Development Department) notices for former employees who were out of work who have not returned phone calls to come back to work. So, every month or so, they have to check in with the EDD, and then the EDD has to check in with us to see if there are any issues with them continuing to be on unemployment. So I know they’re out there and on unemployment, and they’re not working. I’ve had employees who said they’ll come back and work two days a week—as long as it doesn’t affect their unemployment.”
But aren’t Californians who are collecting unemployment required to accept any reasonable employment opportunities offered to them?
“I’m told there’s a place on the form where they can just say that they don’t feel comfortable or safe to go back to work,” Lavine replied. “So it’s kind of a Catch-22. We are short about 20 percent of our staff. So, now have new capacity available to us, and Palm Springs has seen an excellent uptick in tourism of late. Maybe it’s because of the vaccine; maybe it’s because of COVID fatigue, but business is good. That being said, I can’t open as early as I want to yet, because I can’t find enough human beings to work.”
According to United States Census Bureau data, between March 15 and March 21, the country saw a 14.7 percent increase in the number of new hires made by the accommodations and food-service business sector—far surpassing the overall hiring increase of 7.4 percent across all business types. So, obviously, the demand for restaurant workers is up.
“If you told me right now that I could open up at 100 percent, I would literally be pulling my hair out, because I wouldn’t know how to staff the restaurants, and I wouldn’t know what to do,” said Rene Alcala, the owner of the two Bubba’s Bones and Brews locations in Cathedral City and Palm Desert, and Barrel District in Cathedral City.
The lack of staff has caused some restaurants to close on days that owners would love to be open.
“We have been closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” said Patrick Service, owner of Las Casuelas Terraza, in downtown Palm Springs. “In order to open up seven days a week like we’d been doing for 41 years, we need to add staff—and not just add staff who are willing to work, but add staff who are the right fit for us. We would like to serve as many meals as possible, but we want to do it excellently, and in the style we are accustomed to practicing, and in a manner that keeps our family environment intact. So, it has been a challenge.”
Alcala talked about a particularly frustrating day.
“We were planning to get ready for the opening (of indoor dining), so we had about 10 interviews set for one day,” Alcala said. “Well, that was the same day that (the U.S. Senate) approved the extra money for the $1.9 trillion stimulus package. So when that happened, three people called up and said they weren’t coming. One person told me they had gotten COVID all of a sudden on that day. Two or three others just didn’t show. We wound up 0-for-10 that day.”
Some fortunate restaurant owners have escaped this personnel deficit. Sheri Pierattoni, owner of Piero’s PizzaVino in Palm Desert, said her restaurant remains open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.
“There’s been a real minor turnover,” she said. “You know, most of our staff has been with us for a long time. They’re loyal to us, and we’ve established a beautiful camaraderie in the restaurant. We may have lost a few who travelled away.”
What has been her biggest challenge in re-launching indoor dining?
“During the past summer, we established a very healthy to-go business,” Pierattoni said. “So now we’re running two businesses in the restaurant, and the challenge is having the kitchen keep up with it.”
We spoke to Pierattoni just after the first weekend of re-opened indoor dining.
“We had the busiest weekend we’ve ever had,” she said.
Despite other difficulties facing local restaurants—including hikes in the cost of traditional needs like food items and packaging materials; the refurbishing of dining areas left dormant for months; and the purchase of heat lamps and umbrellas to guarantee outdoor-dining comfort—all of the owners we spoke with expressed a belief that better days were in sight.
“Look, I know that with everything I mentioned, it sounds like, ‘Oh, it’s so difficult. Woe is me,’” Blackbook’s Lavine said. “But the reality is that we could be shut down. The reality is that we’ve survived, and I’m grateful for that. The people we have working with us and for us are happy to be where they’re at. The majority of all people want to work. Eighty percent is a good number of people who are excited to work—but that other 20 percent affects how the whole experience goes.”
Alcala expressed cautious optimism. “I think we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It doesn’t look as bad (as it did), but we’ll see what happens.”
Pierattoni, at Piero’s PizzaVino, declared: “We’re open, and there’s life back in the restaurant. We’re all loving it. People are making money, and the staff is working their ass off. We have, what, five weeks left of the busy season? But I think we’re going to have a good summer.”
Las Casuelas Terraza’s Service praised his remaining staff—and the community as a whole—for handling the craziness of the past year.
“We’re doing all three types of service—takeout, outdoor dining and indoor dining,” he said. “It would be a challenge, except when you have people who have been working here almost since the day (the restaurant first) opened, their resiliency and the amount of institutional knowledge here is just unbelievable. It’s awe-inspiring to watch everyone come back and just roll with the punches. They are inspiring.
“We’re excited to welcome everybody back, and we hope that things continue to get better, and that people feel better and stay healthy. We want to be a big part of getting everybody back to their normalcy—their routine and just the happiness we all had before. We want to be a part of getting back to loving life.”