Milwaukee restaurants can't fill to capacity due to worker shortages

story hill bkc restaurant
Posted at 5:11 PM, May 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-13 19:33:23-04

MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee is getting ready to ease COVID restrictions on businesses, allowing them to open to 100-percent capacity. But some places, like restaurants, say they already could open to that if they followed the health department guidelines.

The problem is they do not have the staff to be fully open.

restaurant worker shortage

"Right now we are working with a skeleton crew, like very, very small,” said Charles Fowlkes, the owner of Coaches in downtown Milwaukee. “I need to hire at least four or five people.”

The Black Shoe Hospitality group that owns Story Hill BKC, Maxie’s and Blue’s Egg is dealing with the same issue.

"We are short-staffed at all of our restaurants right now. We are considering delaying an opening of one of our restaurants in Shorewood until the fall. It is unprecedented. It is a huge challenge to our industry,” said Dan Sidner, co-owner of Black Shoe Hospitality.

story hill bkc restaurant
Waitress at Story Hill BKC takes the order of two customers.

The head of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, Kristine Hillmer, says the problem hits all parts of the hospitality industry. Across Wisconsin, 22 percent of workers have left the industry. In Milwaukee County, they have found 38 percent of workers have left.

"It could be permanent losses because they may have gone to a different industry, they may have left the state or they may no longer want to work in hospitality,” said Hillmer.

According to the March 2021 unemployment numbers, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is at 3.8 percent. That is lower than the national rate of 6.0 percent. Hillmer says it means people can choose the job they want, rather than settle.

"Honestly, we don't have enough work-eligible adults in the population to fill the jobs that we have. And it's not just restaurants: it is also hotels, healthcare, manufacturing - it is all across the board,” said Hillmer.

She says in order to fill open positions, employers need to think outside the box, from hiring younger teen workers to retirees.

“We might be inviting some of those senior workers back into the workforce on a part-time basis. Restaurants would be a great way to do that,” said Hillmer. “And a teen doesn't have to work 45 hours a week. It can be a part-time job, especially over the summer."

Both business owners say it has been a rough year and the worker shortage is only making things tougher. But they are confident they can get through this too.

"I'm thrilled to have these challenges, as oppose to the ones we faced a year ago,” said Sidner.

If you are looking for work, there are some job fairs coming up. Black Shoe Hospitality is hiring for all their restaurants on Tuesday, May 18 from 2-6 p.m, at Blue’s Egg at 317 N. 76th St. in Milwaukee. The Bartolotta Restaurants are hosting job fairs at the Italian Community Center, 631 E. Chicago St. in Milwaukee, for all their restaurants as well, starting on Saturday, May 22, Wednesday, May 26 and Tuesday, June 15. You can find out more information at

Report a typo or error // Submit a news tip

Coronavirus in Wisconsin

More data on Wisconsin's vaccination progress here.

Find a vaccination site here.

Check out county-by-county coronavirus case numbers here.

More information: COVID-19 on the Wisconsin DHS website

Latest news and headlines here.