Buffalo Niagara region still ‘in desperate need’ of more restaurant workers
Jay McCarthy owns The Place, a longtime food and drink landmark in the Elmwood Village.
He’s not exactly seeing a pool of veteran hospitality workers.
“You find less people who are professional in this business of the profession where they have been for a very long time,” he said.
McCarthy considers himself lucky. He’s been able to retain a few veteran hospitality professionals. And he credits that as the reason The Place has stayed open throughout most of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Buffalo Niagara food and drink service workforce was cut by more than half when the pandemic first hit, dropping from 43,000 workers to just 19,000 workers in April 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s been on a mostly steady increase ever since December 2020, and finally returned to pre-pandemic levels this past March.
But local restaurant owners say they’re still struggling to find enough workers. So if you have the feeling the service in your favorite restaurant is a little slower, or that summer gin and tonic is getting to you later than you expected, you’re probably right.
Romore Anderson owns a recent addition to the eatery picture downtown, Brothers. He said it’s been difficult to find enough staff to “execute on a high level.” He’d like to hire five more cooks, two more waiters, two more dishwashers and another bartender.
“But no one is knocking on the door these days,” he said.
Up in Buffalo’s University Heights district, Tucker Curtin is re-opening the venerable The Street. The Heights is a neighborhood with many who work in the industry, including college students for whom a restaurant job is a rite of passage.
After being closed for 10 months in the late-stage pandemic, Curtin said the hiring process has changed. Restaurants have to differentiate themselves not only with good pay, but with a good atmosphere.
“Sure, you can get a job at a fast food spot and make some money, but we can really teach you a skill here and something that you can take on for the rest of your life and always make money in this industry,” he said.
More formally, there are a lot of training programs for the hospitality industry, including at Buffalo’s Emerson School of Hospitality and Erie Community College’s City and North campuses.
“The job market for hospitality workers is in desperate need of individuals who are looking for employment,” said Kristin Goss, an associate professor and department chair at ECC City.
There’s also Niagara County Community College’s Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, with hundreds of students and a highly visible location near the Cataract and many tourism customers.
The Culinary Institute has both outside kitchen facilities and outdoor service, as well as more formal sitdown space inside. It also has the glory of summer fruits and whipped cream from bakery students just inside.
The program has taken some heat from Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino. He’s pushed for it to remain open in the summer months when students are off from school.
“The students leave just at around the time the tourists come. So, my argument has been: Let's open the place for when the guests are here, June, July and August,” he said. “The college has agreed and I know that we'll be experiencing that facility being open throughout the summer.”