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Milwaukee area restaurants get ready for busiest summer in years

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Posted at 6:38 AM, May 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-09 07:57:19-04

MILWAUKEE — Some restaurants that survived the pandemic are facing a new hurdle — finding staff. There has been a near-constant need for employees over the past two years, but as we get closer to what's expected to be a very busy summer season, that need is a bit more urgent.

El Greco Family Restaurant, in northwest Milwaukee, used to be open 24-hours. Right now, it's not. The owner said, they simply don't have enough staff to be open around the clock.

It's a safe bet that some of your favorite places across the city are facing similar pressure with a busy summer season, maybe the busiest in years, right around the corner.

In response to being asked why the hiring landscape is more competitive, Keith Trafton, the Chief Executive Officer of The Bartolotta Restaurants said, "I think that perspective employees are asking, 'Why?' Not only, 'Why do I want to work?' but 'Why should I work for you?'"

Bartolotta's answer is competitive pay, benefits, and career-focused training — but culture is where they believe they shine. "We have a family-orientated business," explained Trafton. "So every day at our restaurants, prior to shift, we have a family meal. For some, it's a great way just to grab a little extra snack, for others that's the most purposeful meal of their day."

To succeed in a post-pandemic world, Trafton said — you've got to meet people where they're at. That means diners and staff. "For us, that's optimizing when we can serve our guests and when we can balance our employee's work and their personal lives," added Trafton.

So, for now, a COVID-era tempo that worked well is here to stay. Most of Bartolotta's 16 restaurants will be open five days a week instead of seven.

At Canela Cafe on Milwaukee's east side, being open every day is part of their strategy. The owner, Deena Awadalla, said they wanted to get a feel of which days are busiest and then adjust if needed. "But so far, every day has been great," she said.

Breakfast and lunch can be a desirable shift in the restaurant world, and it's why Awadalla thinks the cafe has been able to avoid major staffing issues while others have not. "To be honest it's a question that I and my friends who are in the restaurant industry ponder. We just don't know why," she added.

Inside Cafe Benelux, they are trying a new approach to answer that same question. "The way that we really thought we could do that was by creating a survey to have our employees take," said Ilena Rivera, the Chief Operating Officer of The Lowlands Group.

Based on over 400 responses, the group now offers paid time off for full and part-time employees a Cafe Benelux, and all of its restaurants. Staff can also get one free meal, per shift.

Haley Dolata, a server and bartender, said that kind of attention makes her feel valued. "They actually listened and gave us things that we were asking for. So that's really cool."

Across the board, restaurant owners in Milwaukee said retention needs to be a focus just as much as recruiting — and everyone is hiring.

Bartolotta Restaurants will be hosting a job fair on Wednesday, May 25th from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee. You can view open positions on their website.

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