Thousands of people are leaving the catering industry

JR Michael has spent most of his life in the restaurant business.

As a teenager, he spent his summers peeling potatoes in the kitchen of his uncle’s deli. He later helped open Applebee’s on Clark Road, where he worked 100 hours a week for $8 an hour.

Through these positions and a variety of other jobs throughout Sarasota County, he worked his way up to a job in the kitchen at Element: Steak. Seafood. Pasta. He was working there in March 2020 when suddenly COVID-19 struck and he was laid off.

Michael had been considering leaving the restaurant industry for several years before Element had the opportunity.

But after two decades in the industry working for employers, he felt like he didn’t care. Michael said he was at the end of his rope. And he’s far from the only one.

Many restaurant workers, including some who have been in the industry for years or even decades, have asked themselves similar questions. Industry volatility, COVID-related health risks and worker burnout have resulted in the loss of 1.8 million US hospitality jobs since February 2020.

Working in the service industry has never been easy. Hours are long, customer interactions can be stressful, and wages are relatively low. But COVID introduced new problems that caused many people to reconsider their circumstances, said Larry Barton, a professor of crisis management and public safety at the University of Central Florida.

“You’re unemployed for three months, you might have to wear a mask in the scorching heat of the kitchen, and then your boss says to you, ‘I can’t afford to keep the shop open, that’s me, sorry,’ even though you have been there for 12 years. The emotional rollercoaster became so profound,” Barton said.

Restaurant owner “paddles really fast” to stay afloat

Despite a sharp drop in employment in the leisure and hospitality sector across the country, it seems many new job seekers are seeing it as a viable field.

Anthony Gagliano, vice president of business development at CareerSource Suncoast in Bradenton, said the percentage of people who have expressed interest in working in hospitality has increased slightly compared to 2019. At the same time, hospitality employment in Sarasota-Manatee is down 8,200 jobs compared to February 2020.

For many people, a job in industry is the first step into the labor market, said Gagliano. The pandemic may have been the nudge they needed to take the leap into something else — perhaps their eventual chosen field.

“A lot of people start out in hospitality and move on to other industries. That got people saying, ‘If it’s not my long-term career path, maybe it’s not something I’m committed to now,'” he said.

This happened at the Artisan Cheese Company, the specialty store at 550 Central Ave. in the Rosemary District. When the pandemic hit, one employee decided to stay home to look after sick family members, owner Louise Converse said. Another staffer came after COVID initially struck but later returned to an equestrian career.

Three years ago, during the high season in March, the Artisan Cheese Company had 12 employees. Now it’s four, and Converse itself works Monday through Saturday on the floor, behind the counter, and in the kitchen, filling in when the store is understaffed or when someone is leaving for the day.

Not only is hiring difficult—job postings that would have brought in 50 applicants two years ago now only bring in a handful—but also retaining employees. It has happened several times. New people come in, realize it’s hard work, and then they leave.

“We tell people at the interview that it’s hard work. They come in and work for a couple of weeks and see that it’s hard work and they can go to one of the larger company kitchens and work less for more. It’s simple math,” Converse said.

She’s thrilled her business has weathered the pandemic, her customers have been amazing and the core employees she has are close-knit and dedicated, Converse said. But on a Wednesday, while she was working in the kitchen after a chef failed to show up, she was beaten. She had already gone into a corner and cried once before getting to her feet.

“I’m like a duck on the water, I look good on top of the water and we all smile, but under the water I paddle really fast. It’s the paddling that people don’t see in small businesses,” she said.

Germain Lesur, 31, worked in hospitality from the age of 15. He worked in hotels and as a valet on Siesta Key, including for the upscale restaurant Summer House.

He racked up unemployment for a while after the outbreak of COVID, but that wasn’t nearly enough. Eventually, he decided to leave Sarasota and join his father’s real estate business, which is based in Detroit.

The service industry faces cost of living problems

“There are so many reasons to leave the service industry after 15 years. You have to deal with people; if you don’t tip, you don’t make money or get health insurance; You work super late and you work when everyone else is having fun,” Lesur said. “But not everyone has the opportunity that I have. You can’t just go and take over a real estate business.”

Another factor was the cost of living. In Detroit, Lesur said he could get a house for $50,000 and rent it for $1,200 a month. It’s a lot cheaper than Sarasota, where the median home price rose 20.9% in 2021 to $405,000.

With soaring real estate prices and a strong tourism industry, Sarasota’s economy is showing many signs of strength. The area was more or less “discovered” by wealthy new overseas residents who can afford to buy multi-million dollar waterfront homes.

Ready for Growth: What’s in store for Manatee County’s economy?

But the downside is that the working class is excluded. Also, new snowbirds, retirees and residents expect a high level of service, Barton said, and when they don’t get it, they’re not afraid to express that frustration.

“They want a great dining experience and they feel entitled to do so. If the restaurant can’t afford that, they take their money elsewhere and don’t come back,” he said.

This was an enormous burden for the employees, said Michael. You’ve endured a lot over the years, but many people have chosen to look elsewhere.

“The entire hospitality industry is built on norms of having people serve them for a night,” he said. “But people now want something more than running errands for rich people.”

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