'We're doing everything we can': Restaurants offer incentives, cut hours amid dire labor shortage

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MILWAUKEE, Wis. (CBS 58) -- You may head to your favorite restaurant and now find that's it's closed on a day when it used to be open.

Across Wisconsin, restaurants are being forced to close extra days or cut their hours because they don't enough staff to open. They're trying to juggle providing good service and keeping the employees they have.

The restaurant group Black Shoe Hospitality has three restaurants, Maxie's, Blue's Egg Milwaukee and Story Hill BKC, and it's trying to open a fourth restaurant. Co-owner Dan Sidner said each operating restaurant is short eight to 12 employees.

"Maxie's and Blue's Egg were previously seven-day-a week restaurants. They're now five-day-a-week restaurants -- not because there isn't demand. There's a lot of people who want to come back out to eat but because we don't have enough staff to run seven days a week," Sidner said.

He said they're currently advertising on seven different platforms with multiple ads each week for every restaurant.

"We have spent collectively tens of thousands of dollars on those ads since April, and we are still understaffed," Sidner said.

The group is offering benefits and competitive pay. Sidner is looking for ways to encourage people to turn hospitality into a career, instead of a part-time gig. He remains optimistic the staffing problem will improve.

"If you walk through the door with an application, we will interview you on the spot," he said.

The Lowlands Group owns Café Hollander, Café Benelux, Café Centraal and Buckatabon. 

"We are hiring basically for every position and that includes managers as well," said Lowlands Group HR Director Carolyn Meuleners. "We're doing everything we can: referral bonuses for employees as well."

She said the company is offering hiring bonuses and trying to do what it can to retain the good employees it has. The greatest need for employees is in the suburban locations, such as Brookfield and Mequon.

"We've closed down restaurants at certain times so that they can take a day of rest," Meuleners said.

Across the state, staffing remains a serious issue for the industry.

"It's a dire problem," said Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. "Restaurants are really struggling and if we can't figure this out, it's going to cause a number of them to not be able to either open fully or they may just have to close their doors."

Federal unemployment benefits ended last week, but Hillmer said restaurants haven't seen a huge influx of people applying for jobs yet.

She said staffing challenges existed before the pandemic, but the restaurant industry lost 22 percent of its workforce during the pandemic.

"Some of them may come back, but probably a lot of them will are gone for good," Hillmer said.

The industry also lost part-time workers during the pandemic, including parents who may have trouble finding child care or seniors who aren't looking to go back to work now.

"All of that combined with the fact that Wisconsin's population growth for working adults is flat. In fact, it's probably going negative now and this is something that we've known for a long time," she said.

Hillmer said parents should encourage their teenagers to apply to restaurants, as it's a great industry for a first-time job.

Some restaurants are having problems with people not showing up to job interviews, so Hillmer is asking that people only apply for a position if they're serious about it.

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