Area restaurants face worker shortage

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Depending on who you ask, Zaffiro’s Pizza on Milwaukee’s east side has the best pizza in town.

But today and every day recently, their dining room sits empty. For lunch, they are open for carryout and delivery. They only have the staff to open the dining room for dinner five nights a week, and owner Mike Zaffiro wonders how long they can keep this current level going.

“That’s going to drop soon because we have a lot of kids going back to school,” he said.

After 67 years in business, Zaffiro says this summer is a first for the east side icon.

“We put up a 'help wanted' sign,” he said. 

Mike Zaffirio is not alone, a July survey by Alignable says 74% of restaurant owners think it’s still more difficult to find help than it was prior to COVID.

Kristine Hillmer, president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, says restaurants all over the state are dealing with rising costs.

“Beef, as an example, has gone up 46-percent,” she said.

Hillmer says worker shortages are also a problem across the state. She says that problem isn’t as simple as people just don’t want to work.

“During the pandemic, we have heard from the state’s economists that the hospitality industry has lost 22-percent of our workforce because there were other sectors that were still hiring,” she said.  

Avni Latifi and his wife Laurie reopened Harry’s Diner in Sheboygan last week. They say good pay and a family atmosphere keep them staffed, so much so that they are looking to expand with a Roman-style pizza market.

“We are definitely going to need more people to make it happen,” Latifi said.

Some restaurants have had to take action to stay staffed.

DanDan in the Third Ward raised prices, putting a 20-percent service charge on the bill, with the option to also leave a gratuity. The service charge has helped DanDan contribute to health insurance and give workers paid vacation, two things that were once unheard of for restaurant staff. Co-owner Dan Jacobs says he’s wanted to do this for a long time.

“To tell you the truth, our staff kills it, so they deserve it,” he said. 

The shortages are likely not going away. The dining experience you enjoyed before the pandemic may be gone, at least for now.

A new reality for customers may include: 

1. Limited menu choices

2. Fewer hours/days of operation

3. Longer wait times

4. Higher prices

Jacobs hopes customers will understand that restaurant staff will be working very hard to make the dining experience the very best it can be.

“As far as customers go, I think being patient is the number one thing,” he said. 

Jacobs says the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is out of money but does have bipartisan support in Congress to be replenished.

Without more money, more restaurants could go under, something Jacobs thinks will take away part of what makes Milwaukee a vibrant city.

“I can’t imagine going to a sea of Applebee's, Olive Gardens, and Red Lobsters, like our independent restaurants are the gateway to our communities,” he said.

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