Starving for Workers: TC’s rep as a foodie town in a tight labor market has restaurateurs scrambling for help

As the tourists flood in, employee payroll swells at local restaurants every summer.

But recent seasons have been challenging for restaurant owners in the current tight labor market. Finding – and keeping – the young people who traditionally hold these jobs has gotten more difficult, they say.

So what’s a foodie town to do in a seasonal hiring labor crunch? Here is how a handful of Traverse City restaurants owners and managers say they are planning to meet their upcoming staffing needs.

The Boathouse, Traverse City

Owner Doug Kosch said his staffing level will grow from the current 20 full- and part-time wait staff, bartenders, cooks, dishwashers and others to 55 this summer. He’s expecting about a dozen past seasonal employees, mostly college students and teachers, to return.

To find the remaining 20 or so employees he’ll need, Kosch and Executive Chef Jim Morse are planning to attend job fairs held by several culinary schools in West Michigan, where they hope to be able to hire at least a few workers.

“It’s a fair amount of work for only a few people, but every little bit helps,” he said.
Kosch and Morse also will be scouring Florida for people who might be looking for jobs during the summer, which is the off season there.

“We’re going to go to resort towns in Florida in February to recruit,” Kosch said. “We’ve developed some relationships with restaurants there that are in a similar situation. We’re hoping that will help us.”
Increased business during the off season has allowed Kosch to keep more of his 20 employees as full-time.

“We’ve made a commitment in the off season to absorbing labor costs and keeping people on full-time so they don’t leave,” he said. “Every winter the economy gets a little better. Traverse City is a hot destination. It’s been busy on the weekends.”

Anderson’s Market, Glen Arbor

After a positive experience last summer using international workers, owner Brad Anderson said he hopes to hire about a half dozen of them to help meet seasonal staffing needs at his Leelanau County deli and grocery store.

“Last year was the first time we used foreign workers,” Anderson said. “They’re quick to learn and they have a strong work ethic. They exceeded my expectations.”

Three young men from Romania who worked at the market last year are planning to return; Anderson is hoping to hire three more. He obtains these workers through a private agency.

Anderson’s Market employs about 18 full- and part-time workers year-round. That number will grow to about 50 during the summer.

Anderson said he plans to hire as many local workers as possible, up to about 25. He said it’s become more difficult to hire high school students in recent years because of things such as prearranged family vacations, and athletic and music camps.

An increasing number of college students are choosing, or are required, to complete summer internships in their chosen field of study, rather than take on seasonal jobs.

To combat the tight labor market, higher wages are being offered to recruit and retain workers, Anderson said.

“We’re trying to work toward a $15 living wage for many of our workers,” Anderson said. Those would include cashiers and more skilled labor in the market’s meat and wine departments.

Hiring foreign workers can be expensive because the federal government requires employers to provide housing and transportation for them. Anderson said he has purchased housing for his workers.

One reason foreign workers are attractive to employers is that they can work the full summer season from Memorial Day to Labor Day, unlike many local college students.

“They like it here because they can earn three to four times as much as they can in their native countries,” Anderson said.

Apache Trout Grill and West End Tavern, Traverse City

Hiring people early, paying good wages and treating employees with respect are the major elements of the seasonal hiring strategy at these two restaurants owned by Mike and Sheila Connors.

Employment at Apache Trout Grill (pictured left) will grow to 120 workers this summer, up from 54 currently. The staffing level at West End Tavern will double from 45 to 90 around Memorial Day weekend.

“One thing we learned from last year is that we need to hire early and get a commitment from people,” Mike Connors said. “And our interview process is becoming more extensive. We need people with the right attitude who will stay with us through the summer.”

Connors has instituted a bonus program in which people who work from Memorial Day through Labor Day will receive a bonus at the end of the season equal to 50 cents for every hour worked.

“We call it our cherry picker program,” he said. “It’s a substantial bonus at the end of the season.”

Connors also has boosted wages to attract the best workers in a tight labor market. For example, dishwashers at his two restaurants start out at $12 an hour, up from $8 an hour two years ago.

Kitchen staff receive one free meal a day, while servers, bartenders and other front-of-the restaurant workers can buy a meal before or after their shifts for half price.

Connors said treating younger workers with respect and demanding accountability is key in developing a quality workforce.

“We’re dedicated to taking care of people who work inside of this building,” he said. “We listen to people and have a non-corporate attitude. We treat them with respect. That’s a high priority for millennials. Employers need to adapt.”

Boone’s Long Lake Inn, Traverse City

Boone’s has been serving locals and tourists for decades – and so have many of its employees. That’s starting to become a problem as veteran staffers retire or ask to work fewer hours.

“We have a lot of long-time employees who’ve been with us 25 to 30 years-plus,” said dining room manager Brian Snell, who has worked at the restaurant for 27 years. “Some of our long-time servers are going down to three [or] four days. We’ve had to reach out for new staff more than we have in the past.”

Seasonal employment at Boone’s, which opened in 1949, will more than double this summer to as many as 140 full- and part-time workers from about 60 currently.

Snell said the restaurant is starting its recruiting effort earlier this year, boosting pay and promoting people faster. Many of its seasonal servers are college students and local teachers.

“Fortunately we haven’t had to advertise,” Snell said. “We’ve been able to fill our hiring needs based on our reputation. We hire a lot of brothers and sisters of our employees. We’ve been pretty fortunate. It’s like a family here.”

Amical, Traverse City

Last summer, Amical owner Dave Denison began hiring more 15- and 16-year olds to fill part-time jobs busing tables, hosting and washing dishes as part of a plan to grow a future workforce.

It proved to be a successful undertaking, so Dennis has continued to hire them.

“I thought if we could hire more of them to work a few hours here and there, it would become a farm system for the future,” he said. “They’re limited [by law] in the jobs they can perform and their hours are limited. But given the state of the labor market, we strategized around it.”

Currently, Amical employs about 50 people, most of them part time. Denison said he’ll probably hire about 10 to 15 more workers for the summer season. Some are servers and others who have worked at Amical in previous summers.

Denison also has partnered with several hotels to hire their foreign seasonal workers who are looking for a few extra hours of work.

“We work with the hotels to offer a second job for them,” he said. “But we have to be flexible with their schedules and recognize their primary jobs are with the hotels.”

Denison also offers his workers a $50 bonus for every person they recommend and is hired by the restaurant.

Treating people with respect, giving them flexibility, and being a safe place to work is the key to recruiting and retaining employees, he said, adding that his philosophy is to be “an employer of choice.”

“This is the first job for many young people who work for us,” he said. “We want them to have a positive experience when they come into the workforce.”