As his restaurants’ customers return, a Miami chef is missing a critical ingredient: Workers

Buoyed by a huge spring break and tourist influx, South Florida restaurants are having a boom, with no hourly workers to service them.

Chef Michael Beltran, second from left, jokes with his staff before the dinner service starts picking up at Ariete in Miami on April 30. (Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post)

MIAMI — In normal times, chef Michael Beltran would have a straightforward plan: Take the seasoned staff from his existing restaurants and have them launch the new ones. These are not normal times.

Beltran needs to hire 85 people for the five eateries he aims to open this year. Meanwhile at his flagship fine-dining restaurant Ariete, as well as his more casual seafood-and-pasta spot Navé, both in Coconut Grove, he’s down dozens of waiters and short prep cooks.

The pasta guy failed to show up for his Navé shift, no phone call; a sous chef had to jump into the role. Both restaurants have been short on full-time help for so long in the dish room that managers are starting to bargain and cajole about who deserves a dishwasher just to get through weekend brunch service. Beltran wants Navé open seven days a week but doesn’t have the bodies to make it work.

Tourism is roaring back in Miami, vaccines and easing coronavirus restrictions filling restaurants and reservation books again. There is pent-up enthusiasm to dine out, even to splurge on Beltran’s 14-course tasting menu. The days of only six customers in the dining room, of hustling to find any revenue stream — turning his third restaurant, Chug’s Cuban Diner, into a bodega selling basic groceries, offering cocktail kits to go, launching a pop-up seafood shack — seem to be in the past.

But Beltran faces an unexpected new threat. He can’t find anywhere near enough bussers, prep cooks, line cooks, bartenders, servers.

A nationwide shortage of restaurant workers is emerging as one of the defining quirks of the nation’s economic recovery from the pandemic. The unemployment rate remains elevated at 6.1 percent, but even as dining establishments aggressively hire workers, data and anecdotal reports suggest they are having trouble luring anywhere near enough staff.

In April, Chipotle Mexican Grill began offering free college tuition for agriculture science, culinary arts and 75 business and technology degrees to workers who stay on past four months. Some restaurants are dangling $2,000 signing bonuses to entice workers, while a Florida McDonald’s offers $50 to applicants just to show up to an interview.

The unusual dynamic was underscored Friday by the release of the monthly labor statistics, which found that 266,000 jobs were created in April, far short of the roughly million new jobs that estimates had predicted. Some analysts blamed an economic recovery that isn’t as strong as it seems, but others have blamed powerful forces such as ongoing health fears and robust unemployment insurance for keeping people from seeking jobs in the service sector.

It’s not a ‘labor shortage.’ It’s a great reassessment of work in America.

“There are plenty of nights we turn guests away because we do not have enough staff to handle more volume,” Beltran said. “This is always an interesting interaction with a guest — ‘But I see tables open!’ No one will really get that, but it is the way we have decided to move forward.”

Before the pandemic, Beltran’s three restaurants employed about 120 people, not including office staff. Last March, when restaurants went dark nationwide, everyone was furloughed. Bartenders were rehired only to become delivery drivers; corporate executive chefs did dish duty; the payroll eventually crept back up to about 30.

Everyone else lost their jobs. Many filed for unemployment, an extra $300 to $600 pandemic boost and stimulus checks on top of that rivaling their salaries at the restaurants, which can range from $8.65 per hour for a tipped worker to around $14 per hour for a line cook.

Government loans during the pandemic helped Beltran tread water, but he and his partners must start generating revenue.

“I keep hearing, ‘People are lazy and don’t want to work!’ I see this very, very differently,” Beltran said. “I feel that after the last 18 months the toll that this whole pandemic has taken on people mentally is huge. I feel like there are real trust issues now between the employees and employers and I understand it.”

It was, for many unemployed restaurant workers, a scary and uncertain time, but also one that may have reordered priorities about what matters. For some, it was the first time in years they had spent dinnertime with family or exercised regularly, said Emma Neal, a bar manager at Beltran’s restaurants. She was off for two months, waiting to be called back, an unexpected hiatus she spent training her 8-week-old puppy and having quality time with her two older dogs.

“It was the first time having nights off for some, so they aren’t in a rush to get back,” she said from behind the bar, her mask muffling her voice. She understands workers’ hesitancy to return: “There’s that straight uncertainty.”

Some restaurant workers pivoted to other industries, grabbing Amazon fulfillment center jobs and driving for grocery delivery.

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A year later, according to Beltran’s corporate executive chef, Phil Bryant, many of his former colleagues are asking themselves, “If I can make $17 per hour at an Amazon warehouse but only $14 per hour as a line cook, a notoriously hot, stressful, intense job, why would I do that?”

And more importantly, he said, they are asking, “If this whole industry can deteriorate overnight and leave everyone unemployed, is this really stable enough to go back to?” (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Some laid-off restaurant workers moved to where rents were cheaper, departing metropolises in favor of childhood hometowns, even childhood bedrooms.

For Beltran, Cuban-American and raised in Miami, the shortage means nearly every facet of his workday revolves around the problem of not enough people.

On a recent Thursday, Beltran had six hours of back-to-back meetings — operations discussions that, one way or another, were all about the same thing. Staffing.

Beltran’s foot, in worn black Chucks, tapped. He occasionally checked his texts or took a puff on his e-cigarette. (He quit smoking more than four years ago and the pandemic yanked the habit back.)

During a debrief about a new employee, a “very regimented” young woman studying hotel and hospitality management, he said simply, “I call her the unicorn.” Hired for the position of maître d’, an hourly front-of-the-house job, she was polished and professional.

Beltran said that for every 10 résumés he gets, maybe one person shows up for an interview. The stakes are high. In addition to his two existing restaurants, he’s working to open an upscale restaurant in downtown Miami called Brasserie Laurel, and in Coconut Grove he is renovating and expanding Chug’s Cuban Diner, along with debuting an adjacent music-themed speakeasy called The Booth, a sports-themed hot dog place called The UnderDogs, and an ice cream and record shop called Scoop Records.

Beltran grabbed his phone to walk out the door and down the block at 1 p.m. to the Chug’s construction site. With Brittany Rothwell, his director of operations, he inspected the bar going in, measured the light fixtures, the sound of dueling compound miter saws making conversation difficult. Beltran received an email that the kitchen tile had finally arrived in a shipping container — coronavirus outbreaks around the world have led to supply chain disruptions and shipping containers jamming up in one port city and disappearing from another.

He and Rothwell conferred with the contractor, everyone estimating eight weeks until completion. As they watched the plastic septic tanks lowered into big holes out front, the banter sounds like wishful thinking, the unspoken truth that they can’t open the doors until the restaurant is sufficiently staffed. A Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association survey in April found 83 percent of operators say they are understaffed; 65 percent say their profit margin is still lower than it had been pre-pandemic.

Beltran has a tattoo behind his right ear of a chubby pig suspended by a skydiving parachute. The image, the corporate logo for his Ariete Hospitality Group, is a reminder of a high school teacher who told him he would succeed only “when pigs fly,” but also a commitment to succeed on his own terms, in his own way. But it depends on lots of other people, and it’s not clear what is needed to bring them back.

“People feel burned. Or burned out. Experiencing this made people more aware of what they were missing out on,” he said. “This gave them a kick in the [rear end] to do something different, to find their real life.”

Longtime Ariete customer Adrian Acosta describes one of his favorite waitresses who peeled off to go to paralegal school. Ariete bartender Nyle Bilal talks about a fellow bartender who expanded his mixed martial arts hobby to make it a full-time pursuit.

During the 2 p.m. Chug’s operations meeting, talk is about adapting hiring strategies.

“We talked a little bit last night about our zany ideas,” said Bryant, recruited as Beltran’s corporate executive chef from the hugely popular Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in Miami Beach. In short, if they can’t find hourly line cooks, he said, it may be best to hire a whole bunch of salaried “sous chefs” instead, even if they’re overqualified.

“How many salary positions do you think you would need?” Rothwell asked.

“Originally we were at five,” Beltran said. “So, maybe more like what Phil did at Yardbird, right? So that’s 10.”

“It’s like the Civil War," Bryant said. "You’re just throwing bodies at the situation so you can win the war.”

Nick Bunker, economic research director for North America at the Indeed Hiring Lab, said potential restaurant workers may see other higher-paying opportunities that keep them out of indoor spaces.

“Former restaurant employees might see the booming housing market and the construction jobs it offers as a more attractive option,” he said. “Workers with more specialization in the restaurant industry are more likely to return, but workers who are less connected to the industry could be looking elsewhere.”

He adds that a number of other factors could be behind the phenomenon.

“Workers are still concerned about catching the virus or that a job might disappear again, a lack of available child-care options, potentially the bonus unemployment insurance payments, or all three in combination,” Bunker said.

The problem could intensify as the pandemic eases, especially in a city like Miami, which had a huge spring break and tourism uptick, according to Rolando Aedo, chief operating officer of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The Miami bureau’s recovery index, which tracks volume of air travel, hotel rooms sold and reservations through Open Table, indicates that restaurant reservations are nearly 28 percent higher now than 2019 pre-pandemic levels, when things were already booming. New restaurants are everywhere, the sidewalk tables in swishy Coconut Grove overflowing with patrons. Virtually no one in masks. Florida is fully open for business, everyone eager to move on.

“From a volume perspective, we’re significantly above where we were two years ago,” Aedo said. “People have pandemic fatigue, and we were sooner out of the gate to reopen.”

All of this good news, according to Aedo, but has led to 26 percent of accommodation and food service jobs being unfilled in Miami-Dade County.

Many of these positions are advertised with increasing vigor and desperation on jobs websites Craigslist and Indeed. There are about 6,000 seated food service outlets in Miami alone, almost all looking for new hires. And this doesn’t include the wider county or even the fabled restaurant rows of Miami Beach.

Worker and labor market advocates say that pay increases could be the solution for Miami’s and other cities’ hospitality labor crisis. A report released May 5 by the University California at Berkeley Food Labor Research Center and the labor nonprofit One Fair Wage, describes the problem not as a labor shortage but as a wage shortage, saying restaurants should just pay workers more.

U.S. picked up just 266,000 jobs in April, well below expectations as economy struggles to rebound

But restaurant owners argue their margins are so slim — often 3 to 5 percent — they can’t afford to do that in any significant way. Beltran says he had to offer more money to nab new workers than he did pre-pandemic, though he wouldn’t say how much.

For a place like Navé, a two-year-old restaurant still financially struggling, he says offering too much would doom his enterprise. Few restaurants are willing to take the risk of passing significantly higher labor costs on to customers, given that the competition might not.

After Beltran’s meetings and all the talk about staffing, it was time to do the thing that drew him to this business to begin with.

At Ariete from 6 to 10 p.m., Beltran stood at the pass-through, calling out orders for pastrami-style short ribs or wood-grilled oysters with bone-marrow butter. He wiped plate edges and air-traffic-controlled the plates into the thrumming dining room, depending on the near-wordless synergy of kitchen and service teams he can’t keep staffed.

Without them, Beltran’s pig won’t fly.