'It's like a war,' restaurateur says of struggle to find workers

Lori Weisberg, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Business News

SAN DIEGO — What if all of the country's restaurants reopened their doors following a year-long pandemic that forced massive layoffs and hardly anyone showed up? To work.

It's more than a hypothetical riddle.

As drinking and dining venues across the nation get the green light to more widely welcome back the customers they've been craving since COVID-19 first shut them down almost 14 months ago, many employers have been confronting a near-crisis labor shortage.

While it initially caught them off guard, it shouldn't be all that surprising.

San Diego is experiencing something of a perfect storm as it transitions into life under increasingly relaxed reopening rules driven by rising vaccinations and diminishing infection rates. That, in turn, has unleashed a torrent of job openings not only for restaurants and bars, but also for hotels, casinos, theme parks and other service industries at a time when enhanced jobless benefits remain alluring.

So difficult is it to find cooks, dishwashers, servers and bartenders that many pandemic-battered restaurants are foregoing lunch service, closing earlier than normal or staying open fewer days a week because they lack the manpower to serve the guests they know are eager to eat out.


The once familiar lament that overly strict COVID-19 guidelines were killing their businesses has been supplanted by urgent appeals for jobs and at pay considerably higher than just a year ago.

"After 14 months of COVID hell, you finally get the orange light to open up at 50 percent capacity and you can't find people to come back to work," said David Cohn, co-founder of the Cohn Restaurant Group, which is looking to fill 200 positions at its 20 venues across San Diego County. "We've reached out to the San Diego Workforce Partnership, every culinary program. At Corvette Diner, which we've struggled to reopen, we reached out to theater groups because it's about entertainment at that restaurant. We said if you bring us people with the right attitude we can teach them to be servers or bussers or soda jerk."

"The unemployment rate is still so much higher than it was pre-COVID, you thought there would be all these people who would be anxious to come back to work."

Corvette Diner just reopened a week ago — albeit not yet at its normal seven days a week — thanks in part to the recruitment of several local theater performers, who've also been hit hard by the pandemic.


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