DENVER, Colo. — The doors are open, and customers are back, but restaurant owners say things are not back to normal. Staffing shortages and inflation are still hurting restaurants around the country, but with innovative technology and training, some restaurants are finding ways to survive.
“When you leave your home, you're looking for that engagement, an interaction with others, and we've definitely seen that has returned immensely in the last like six months,” said Courtney Griffith, the general manager of the Catbird Hotel and Red Barber restaurant in Denver, Colorado.
This year, record numbers of people are eating out and 74% of restaurants around the country reporting increased sales, but overall, restaurants are struggling. Profit margins this year over last year are down from 12% to 10%.
“We've all had to get really creative,” said Griffith. “It's not uncommon to go into a restaurant and have your GM being the one that's running food and busing tables because we have been so understaffed for so long.”
Griffith and her team opened a hotel and restaurant in the middle of the pandemic, so from the start, it had to be run differently.
“We're a 165-room hotel with a rooftop restaurant and bar that can accommodate up to 600 people in a day. We would normally operate with 75 to 100 employees, and we have been running with 25 to 40,” said Griffith.
Technology is the biggest help. At the restaurant, customers order and pay on their phones. There are no servers—just food runners.
“They're really able to focus on that guest interaction instead the transactional interactions,” said Griffith.
All employees are also trained to work every position.
“We hire to kind of be like well-rounded. And so, you might come in for a breakfast attendant position, but you're also the concierge at the front desk or a food runner on the weekend for a banquet,” said Griffith.
These changes have helped her keep employees and attract new workers. “You don't get bored in your role, which oftentimes people will leave for another position if they feel like they're not being challenged enough,” said Griffith.
She’s hoping other restaurants will follow their lead and make these pandemic changes permanent.
Denise Mickelson of the Colorado Restaurant Association believes that's already happening.
“Technology is going to be more and more prevalent. I don't think paper menus are coming back necessarily. And i think that customers are going to be expected, and also want, to be a little bit more in charge of the experience that they have at restaurants, and tech allows for that,” said Mickelson.
With the changes for the customer, come changes for workers too. Nationally, food service wages are up 10%, and more restaurants are offering benefits.
“We're talking everything from educational stipends to health and wellness support and resources to medical insurance, vision, 401(k), you name it,” said Mickelson.
These changes forced by the pandemic have been hard for many restaurants to overcome, but they are changes many in the service industry have been wanting.