By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
You’ve seen the signs.
“Unfortunately, due to a lack of staff, we are closed today. We apologize and hope to re-open soon.”
Or some version of that.
For those in the culinary industry who survived last year’s shutdowns, the second of this one-two punch is that so many of us aren’t able to fully capitalize on the tourism revenue flowing through the valley, and judging by what I can tell, 2021 is looking like it could be the biggest tourism year to date—at least in the Montana counties and valleys with larger cities who are close to national parks.
On these signs, some restaurants even post a phone number inviting applicants to apply, but as I visit with my peers on a regular basis, they all say the same thing: There are no applicants. No one is interested.
And while it’s human social nature to feel like you have it worse than everyone else, it sure does feel like restaurants—specifically restaurant kitchens—have been the hardest hit. Two of our locations have been added to the list of restaurants that cannot open seven days a week.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, here are some key words that define what an epidemic is: Spreading rapidly and extensively. Affecting many individuals in an area or population at the same time. Widely prevalent. An outbreak that spreads rapidly and widely.
I’d say the employment challenge we are facing matches with most every word of that. We are facing an epidemic.
All of this has had me asking the same questions for months:
Where is everybody? Are they hiding in plain sight?
Are potential employees among the droves of people filling every business as a customer but not as part of the work force? Joining in conversations about how people are being paid to stay home, all the while assimilating frustrated people who are working like the humans in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” who were able to blend in with the aliens?
Take notice when you are out and about. Long before the summer tourism season began, everyone and everything was just busier: Hospitality, Target, Costco, parks and even golf courses.
But we also have the added challenge of a housing shortage.
When I moved here 21 years ago, there was a faucet of employees that didn’t seem to turn off. Cooks and dishwashers were plentiful. They skied or rode the mountain by day, or mountain biked, and worked in a kitchen by night. It was the life everyone wanted, and a balance was maintained.
The first and sometimes only question from a prospective cook or dishwasher was whether or not we provided a ski pass. But in recent years, that question changed to whether or not we provided housing.
Countless times I have had cooks or dishwashers unable to accept a job because we either didn’t provide or were already full in our employee housing.
This has had a profound effect on virtually every restaurant I know. It changes what is on our menu, how we cook, what we cook, when we are open, and what our prices are. It has caused us to completely rethink what a restaurant looks like and how it operates.
I yearn for a day when I do not see one irritated or deflated person turned away at a restaurant when they read the sign on a restaurant door telling them the kitchen is closed.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the multi-concept culinary director for a Bozeman based restaurant group.