Some Southern Indiana restaurants struggle to find workers in saturated market

(Published in the News and Tribune Sept. 2, 2017)

SOUTHERN INDIANA — May was the last time Cheryl Koetter had to fire someone.

The employee was abusing drugs and a liability around Cricket’s Cafe’s meat slicer. It wasn’t the first incident of its kind at the Sellersburg restaurant, but not because of the drugs. Koetter’s employees are often quitting unexpectedly or being fired. She’s also struggling to find workers to hire.

“I’m okay right now, but I’ve been short-staffed for years,” she said grimly.

Koetter primarily blames the issue on the local workforce being unwilling to, well, work. But as the unemployment rate in Clark and Floyd counties decreases and more and more restaurants open, many, but not all, service industry employers are dealing with a smaller pool of hires.

“The good news is, we’ve got this booming restaurant scene both here and in Louisville. And in my opinion, the bad news is we have a booming restaurant scene, so that there’s lots of opportunities,” said Luanne Mattson, the communications director for the Clark-Floyd Counties Convention & Tourism Bureau.

Workers may be realizing that they could easily find work at another restaurant, she speculated — presumably causing them to leave their current jobs.

Wendy Dant Chesser, the president and CEO of One Southern Indiana, said that employers grappling with finding workers has been a concern “across the board” in the area.

The unemployment rate in the Louisville Metropolitan area was 4.2 percent in 2016 — the lowest it had been in 16 years, according to STATS Indiana.

“…We tend to hear it more from our manufacturers,” Dant Chesser said. “That doesn’t mean that the service industry is immune to it.”

The issue has placed stress on restaurant owners and in some cases, has even delayed openings.

Matt McMahan, the owner of Big Four Burgers + Beer in Jeffersonville and New Albany, recently started a new venture, District 22 Pizzeria, but not until he spent several months searching for delivery drivers and cashiers. He’s still in need of a few more workers.

“Hopefully now that people see it’s open, maybe we’ll have more people applying,” he said.

McMahan has also adjusted the model for his next restaurant, CIDEways Cidery + Restaurant, to accommodate for fewer workers. Instead of patrons sitting down upon entering the restaurant and having their order taken, they’ll order and have their food prepared at a counter.

Not all restaurant owners in the area are having trouble finding hires. Garrett Petters, a co-owner of the soon-to-be-opened seafood restaurant Hull & High Water in New Albany, hasn’t started open interviews for his restaurant, but he’s still not worried about finding the 12 to 17 workers he needs.

“A lot of people say it’s very challenging. I’ve been lucky that most places I’ve worked, I have a certain philosophy of management style where people work with me, not for me,” he said, adding that if you value the time of the people working with you as much as you expect them to value yours, “that, you know, people work for you again and again and show up.”

Derek Young, co-owner of Chillburger, has already made the hires he needs for his new restaurant, which is opening soon in Floyds Knobs. He received a stack of around 100 applications for just 25 open positions.

“We pay extremely well, so we never have any problems,” said Young, who also works for his parents’ local restaurant chain, Chillers Microcreamery. “Our philosophy is always pay more to get the very best. A lot of restaurants will try to pay the minimum, so they’ll get the minimum.”

It helps if the restaurant has good opportunities and ambience, too.

Amanda Holt, a recently hired Chillburger employee, has been involved with the restaurant industry for a while — 12 to 15 years, she said. In the past, she’s stayed at jobs for an average of two years, but she sees more potential in Chillburger: It has a nice atmosphere, she said, and she sees opportunities for advancement.

“Hopefully here will be a long-term career for me,” she said.

As more competition emerges, it might be time for other restaurants to get aggressive about hiring workers. Dant Chesser said she has seen businesses in several industry sectors take on the challenge.

Koetter and McMahan are certainly stepping it up.

Cricket’s Cafe has bumped up its pay for employees. Koetter makes sure to pay above minimum wage — fairly far above for dedicated workers.

McMahan has also raised wages for employees, and is now giving newer workers more responsibility. Maybe if they feel as if they have a stake in his restaurant, they’ll be more likely to stick around. Or at least give him a two-weeks notice when they decide to leave.

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