Staff shortages are the next hurdle facing Charleston restaurants | Photo by Jessie McCall on Unsplash

South Carolinians are getting vaccinated and cautiously beginning to resume life as it once was, meaning restaurants are getting busier. Local restaurateurs are grateful for the uptick in sales, but they’re now grappling with a new problem — staffing up to meet the demand. 

“At no point in time have we been sufficiently staffed since we reopened for service. Then, when we started getting busy in the last month, it ratcheted up to another level,” said Home Team BBQ owner Aaron Siegel, whose four South Carolina locations are still operating without walk-up bar service. “I don’t even know if we would have enough people to make that happen if we wanted to.” 

States with less restrictions like South Carolina and Florida are facing a shortage of available food and beverage employees heading into the summer, when vaccinated tourists will make warm weather states even busier. 

Home Team BBQ owner Aaron Siegel says he hasn’t been sufficiently staffed since reopening last spring | Ruta Smith

“I think the biggest thing is nobody saw how busy the city was going to be. I think it was an awakening for some restaurants,” said Nico Romo, who owns NICO in Mount Pleasant and Bistronomy by Nico downtown. 

“It’s a nationwide issue, but I think it’s probably amplified in areas that are less restrictive like ours,” Siegel said. “I even talked about using more of our marketing dollars to find employees. Even though we’ve steadily been pushing up rates over the past few years, I think that people are not willing to do this type of work for whatever reason.” 

Recent statistics from a five-month-old online staffing platform tell a similar story. Founded by Ben Ellsworth and celebrity chef Sean Brock, GigPro connects restaurants and employees looking for temporary extra shifts, allowing establishments to efficiently staff up when in need of help on-demand. 

Since its November 2020 launch, Ellsworth has seen a shift — at first, there weren’t enough available jobs for those looking to pick up shifts. But after seeing a 92% “fill rate” for jobs in February, that number dipped to around 50% in March, Ellsworth said, meaning there were far more jobs than employees available to fill them. 

“Now it’s like, ‘How do we get the word out that we need people outside of the industry?’” Ellsworth said. “It’s like Uber at 2 a.m.” 

GigPro connects restaurants with short term staffers | File photo

Despite the low “fill rate,” GigPro is succeeding in its mission to connect restaurants with short-term employees. More than 75 jobs had been completed via the app eight days into April — in comparison, there were just under 100 completed during the entire month of February. And, restaurants are offering higher wages on the app in the last two months, with most now being listed in the $18-$20-per-hour range, Ellsworth said. 

The numbers show that Charleston-area restaurants are desperate for more employees — some more than others. 

According to Cuban Gypsy Pantry owner Chloe Vivas, employee “poaching” tactics by at least one other local restaurant have tempted her staff with higher wages. This occurred earlier this month when multiple members of a “downtown restaurant” offered some of Vivas’ employees jobs while dining at her North Charleston location. Vivas did not disclose the name of the restaurant.

Cuban Gypsy Pantry co-owner Chloe Vivas says her staff is exhausted but loyal | Rūta Smith

“I already sent a personal message to the restaurant downtown who took this approach last week,” Vivas wrote on Instagram. “The great part is that I have amazing staff who are exhausted but loyal, and they were turned completely off by what happened.” 

Vivas elaborated, telling the City Paper, “Apparently this is not new to my restaurant, and it’s happening a lot here with blatant group and team tactics for recruiting. I can’t make anyone stay as much as I can’t make anyone accept new jobs with us, even though they are desperately needed positions that I have to fill as well.” 

Vivas owns and operates two Charleston-area restaurants — the Gypsy Parlor in Summerville and Cuban Gypsy Pantry in North Charleston, a 4,200-square-foot establishment on Dorchester Road. Half of the space was supposed to be transformed into a 30-seat incubator featuring an Italian and craft pizza concept called Bar Za, but staffing issues have delayed the project for months, Vivas said. 

The restaurant employee shortages existed pre-COVID-19, Ellsworth said, and the industry is due for a correction soon — one that could increase the cost of dining out in Charleston. 

“The issue is that this industry spends a whole bunch of money, time and energy taking care of the customer and absolutely no time taking care of its people,” Ellsworth said. “The pain point of low wages has always been on the workers of this industry; now the pain point is on the business at catastrophic levels, and at some point the pain point will have to shift to the consumer by raising prices.”

Romo agrees, commenting that rising home rental costs have made it more difficult for workers to afford housing near the restaurants that employ them. 

NICO chef/owner Nico Romo says staffing was a problem pre-COVID-19 | File photo

“It seems like everybody is jumping on this conversation right now,” said Romo, describing long commute times as a deterrent for some food and beverage industry workers. “I think that’s a major problem. If you live in North Charleston and Summerville, how do you come downtown?” 

Although Romo is currently looking to hire “one chef, one or two food runners and one server” to work at his restaurants, the chef is grateful to have retained most of his staff throughout the pandemic. 

“I’m just super thankful for the staff I have.”