By Evan Haddad, Reno Gazette Journal, November 17, 2023
In the wake of COVID-19, signs in windows lamented a lack of staff and job applicants as Reno restaurants navigated the labor market. Prospective applicants wanted more money, better benefits and were willing to wait for the right opportunities — often to the frustration of small business owners hoping to return to normalcy.
Two years later, what’s changed?
Although recent numbers paint a rosy picture of employment levels in Nevada’s food and hospitality industries, some restaurateurs say Reno is still going through a transitional phase while others feel the worst is behind them.
Here’s what some Reno restaurant owners are saying
Caitlin Fletcher, who co-owns the local sandwich spot The Cheese Board with her sister, Krista Phillips, says that the main hurdle her business faces is salary expectations.
“What’s challenging in a small family-owned restaurant setting is that additional employee income used to be supplemented with customer tips,” Fletcher said. “However, with the rapid advancement of technology and the additional fees that come with the convenience and ease that these technologies bring, overall cost of doing business is higher across all industries.”
Fletcher says such costs are often passed on to the customer, who then may feel less inclined to pay additional gratuity on top of their bill.
“With already narrow margins in the restaurant business, this puts the owners in the predicament of how to bear the burden of the higher wages to attract and retain good employees, while also keeping quality of food high and prices reasonable for customers,” Fletcher said.
To adapt, Fletcher says the business has focused on creating an attractive work culture while maintaining transparency about wages and growth opportunities.
“Creating a culture where your employees feel valued, seen and understood allows for a happier staff which ideally will trickle down to better customer service, which will then bring return guests and higher gratuities,” Fletcher said.
Michael Maiman, a managerial veteran in Reno’s restaurant scene who currently serves as Longboards Pizza’s general manager, says it’s been “a long road since 2021.” One of the biggest things he’s seen since then is the changing dynamics in the food service workforce.
“The workforce is there, but the experience isn’t,” Maiman said.
Longboards has needed to increase pay to attract leadership and experienced staff, Maiman says, while hourly wages for entry level workers hasn’t changed much since the pandemic.
“Those professionals who stayed in the industry definitely can demand more of a premium because they have those skills.”
Giving young people their first jobs has always been part of Longboards’ business model, says co-owner Julie Keller, which has helped to broaden the hiring pool. But even while casting a wider net, the business couldn’t hire all the staff it wanted when Longboards opened a second location this summer. Longboards had to hire a number of 15-year-olds who by law are limited to certain hours and duties.
Still, Keller says that young people play an important role in the company culture.
“We like having a lot of high school kids around us,” Keller said. “We want high energy.”
Food services employment numbers are rosy
Nevada boasts the second-highest concentration of food services in the nation, and employment in the industry is up nearly 17% since December 2019. That level of growth tops every other state in the nation.
David Schmidt, chief economist at the research bureau of the Nevada Department of Employment, Training, and Rehabilitation (DETR), provided an optimistic view on the state’s food services industry.
“Food services in general is a key source of growth in the broader leisure and hospitality industry,” Schmidt said. “This industry was hit hard in the initial months of the pandemic, but bounced back rapidly and is now significantly above pre-pandemic employment. “
But not all industries adjacent to food services and hospitality have enjoyed the same boon.
Schmidt pointed out that, in contrast, the casino hotel industry has trended flat both before and since the pandemic. It has yet to recover its pre-recession employment.
Because Nevada has a higher share of jobs in accommodation than in food services, the Silver State tends to have high average wages in the leisure and hospitality industry compared to other states, and workers in the industry tend to work more hours. However, in recent months, the hourly rate of pay has pulled back a little bit after running very high a year ago.
The pandemic fuled growth opportunities
Krysta Bea made the daunting decision to transform her artisan confections business, Sugar Love Chocolates, into a digital-only wholesale operation when in 2020 the pandemic killed demand for fancy sweets at her downtown Reno store.
Bea moved into a kitchen space shared with Nevada Brining Co., creating the luscious sweets and managing the business entirely by herself. She has enjoyed a more profitable business and better lifestyle without the overhead costs of a brick-and-mortar shop. But she’s also had to navigate new challenges as a wholesaler in the digital marketplace.
“I think I assumed that recovery of the business would happen right away after getting into the new kitchen,” Bea said. “What I experienced instead was a period of stagnation after the chaos. Some of this I think was the general economy; some of it was missed business opportunities; but a lot of it was me adjusting as an entrepreneur.
“I am essentially running a new business and had a lot to learn about how to run it efficiently. I think I’ve finally got that down and now I’m really focused on growth. The business feels like it’s in a good spot right now.”
Bea says she’s still enjoying less stress as she continues to run the Sugar Love operation by herself, though she may hire part-time staff in the future. Year-over-year sales are consistently growing, she says, and the company is aiming for a 20% growth in the fourth quarter over 2022.
“In general, I feel like the company has finally actually recovered from the pandemic and all the chaos it brought,” Bea said. “Prices in the supply chain have also calmed down and some have even gone back to pre-pandemic cost, so that’s made running the business easier as well.”
“So yes, things are better than two years ago,” Bea said.