Milwaukee restaurants face staffing shortage as COVID restrictions lift and Downtown Dining Week kicks off

NOW: Milwaukee restaurants face staffing shortage as COVID restrictions lift and Downtown Dining Week kicks off

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Thursday, June 3 marks the start of Downtown Dining Week in Milwaukee, just days after the city of Milwaukee lifted its COVID-19 restrictions and mask mandate. Local leaders say restaurants were one of the hardest hit industries during the pandemic, and are now encouraging people to support them.

"Please take part in this annual tradition to support local businesses," said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Mayor Barrett says it's great to see case trends improving, with the positivity rate as of Thursday being 2.2-percent, down from 3.4-percent the previous week.

Restaurants participating in Downtown Dining Week say it's nice to see tables filling up.

"We're starting to see reservations and we started to see some of the familiar faces from people even returning to their office, so it's very much a kind of return to normalcy," said Jack Roman, general manager at Third Street Tavern.

"With restrictions lifted we're able to get people back in here and excited for you know, new menu items, new things that are coming out," says Gabriel Burkhalter, general manager of Who's on Third. "So it's very exciting to see."

Milwaukee County health officials say diners should remain vigilant when going to restaurants.

"I very much prefer restaurants that have outdoor dining, I think it's a safer way to eat, especially if I'm bringing unvaccinated kids along," said Dr. Ben Weston, medical director at Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

"We are seeing that people are starting to return to the people and places that they love -- that is great news, but we cannot completely throw caution to the wind," adds Mayor Barrett.

While restaurants say they are thrilled about people coming in, staffing shortages continue to be concerning.

"Normally I'd have 20 or 30 applications a week," said Roman. "I'm not really sure if people are still a little bit afraid of the industry. I'm not sure what's going on, but it's bad."

"It's going to take aggressiveness to try to get people back there, and what it might end up doing is raising their pay, and that's not the worst thing in the world," Mayor Barrett said. "I certainly acknowledge that this is a difficult time for a lot of restaurants to find workers and that's a challenge."

During Downtown Dining Week, restaurants are asking for patience.

"We have fresh new faces coming in who might want to learn the industry, so as people are coming in they're training, they're learning and we just ask that customers be patient," says Burkhalter.

"I'm more concerned about making sure it's right and good than it's quick, so if it takes a few more minutes, you know I'm happy to have a conversation. I'm going to ask you to forgive us on that, it's not the server's fault, it's not the kitchen's fault really, it's just an employment crunch right now," Roman adds.

This year more than 20 restaurants are participating in Downtown Dining Week, which ends on Sunday, June 13.

Share this article: