Facing Hardest Staffing Climate in Decades, Cleveland Restaurants Desperate to Fill Jobs Before NFL Draft (And Beyond)


East 4th St. will be bustling for the first time in a long time come the NFL draft - ERIK DROST/FLICKRCC
  • Erik Drost/FlickrCC
  • East 4th St. will be bustling for the first time in a long time come the NFL draft

Despite the offer of attractive wages, prime shifts and the prospect of working during one of the busiest spring dining seasons in years, employees are not filling even a fraction of available hospitality positions in Cleveland.

“It’s the worst I’ve seen in my 20 years of hiring cooks in Cleveland," says Demetrios Atheneos, owner of Chicken Ranch in University Heights.

Some owners are going so far as to curtail days and hours of service to match the reduced size of the staff they do have.

“We were going to add more lunch shifts, but had to cancel those because we just cannot find enough back-of-the-house employees right now,” says Bac Nguyen, owner of Ninja City. “Average wages keep going up and we try to remain competitive but it’s hard.”

And Nguyen and Atheneos are hardly alone. Almost without exception, restaurant owners and managers are facing a desperate and, frankly, paradoxical situation. Now that Covid restrictions are beginning to be relaxed, diners are getting vaccinated at record pace and the weather is warming up, there was a genuine sense of optimism in the industry for the first time in 14 months. But all of that is being stymied by an impossible lack of either desire or demand on the part of employees.

There are many theories as to why employers are having such an impossible time filling slots. The truth is likely a combination of many factors, chief among them are expanded unemployment benefits, the fear of getting sick and the fact that many workers simply fled the industry since March of 2020, wary of inconsistent hours, uncertain wages, and inherent health risks. (There's also a cogent argument to be made that the pandemic has shifted power to labor in the hospitality industry, allowing people to look at long hours, low wages and rude customers and simply walk away.)

That problem, while not unique to Cleveland, is complicating matters for a high-profile event that will bring scores of visitors to town. National events like the NFL Draft are a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity to show off our city to newcomers, a huge component of which is the dining scene. And national events like the draft are a huge windfall for restaurants in and around the event grounds.

The Greater Cleveland Partnership, in an effort to raise awareness to the problem while simultaneously hoping to help fix it, has published a website to help downtown restaurants “bulk up their staff.” Listed within are dozens of establishments hungry for help.

“The NFL Draft represents a great opportunity to spur the rebound of the local hospitality industry,” Deb Janik, Senior Vice President of Real Estate and Business Development at GCP, said in a news release. “Many of our Downtown employers have positions open and are looking to hire."

Two downtown businesses that are struggling to fill spots are Mabel's BBQ and Flannery's. Flannery's owner and Mabel's partner Doug Petkovic says it's the worst employment situation that he's experienced during his 30 years in the industry.

"It's the most difficult staffing environment I have ever witnessed," Petkovic says. "We have made decisions on how many days to open Mabel's on East 4th Street not based on how much business we can do, but on finding enough staff."

Petkovic is hopeful that things will improve in the coming weeks and months, but he and his colleagues have learned to live with uncertainty.

"Maybe when the vaccines kick in and unemployment is over people will need extra jobs and feel safe, but I have no idea," he adds. "I'm navigating what I actually know, not what I think."

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