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Amidst labor issues, restaurants work to improve culture

Improved wages and employee perks are helping local restaurants stay competitive
The Roost Ext (1 of 1)
The Roost ramps up weekend service, with extended seating in the breezeway to accommodate COVID restrictions

Amidst a pandemic, labor shortages and a national outcry for minimum wage increase, restaurants have made improvements to their cultures and hiring practices to stay competitive. 

When the COVID pandemic hit in March 2020, restaurants and bars faced a crisis as shutdowns and capacity restrictions were put into place. Employees were furloughed throughout the service industry and unemployment rates spiked. 

In February 2020, the state unemployment rate was at 2.5%, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. By April it had jumped to 11.3% as businesses were forced to close down in-person services. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 8 million hospitality jobs were lost around the country by April 2020.

More than a year and a half later the numbers have improved. Colorado has a current unemployment rate of 5.9%, with Boulder County sitting at 4.9% as of September 2021. Still, retaining staff and enticing new hires has become a priority for restaurants in a shifting landscape.

A quick internet search for restaurant job openings in Longmont shows dozens of postings for open positions. Front-of-house positions, kitchen and management positions all waiting to be filled for small establishments and chain restaurants alike. 

According to Glassdoor, Longmont servers make an average of $34,000 a year. The minimum wage for tipped employees in Colorado is a meager $9.30 an hour, while hourly employees in non-tipped positions make a minimum $12.32 an hour. 

At minimum wage working 40 hours a week, an employee would make just under $2,000 a month. Cost of living for the area continues to rise, with rents in Longmont averaging around $1,500 a month according to sites like RentCafe. As most rental companies recommend tenants make double the rent for a monthly wage, finding affordable places to live becomes a challenge to service industry workers.

National restaurant chains like Chipotle, Good Times Burgers and Raising Cane’s have stepped up benefits for their employees as well, including tuition discounts and reimbursements for higher education. Chipotle started offering health insurance benefits, along with mental health resources and 401(k) opportunities in 2019. Since May 2021, Chipotle has increased starting wages up to $18 an hour in some states, along with referral bonuses for staff who help fill open positions.

Local restaurants like The Roost and Nomad Kitchen — located inside 300 Suns – along with Colorado chains like BeauJo’s have put in the effort to improve quality of life and work culture to ensure loyal staff stay and offer more appeal to new hires. Higher wages go hand-in-hand with hiring and referral bonuses, biweekly bonuses for showing up to work, along with perks, benefits and other incentives. 

According to The Roost’s Director of Operations Alishia Moore, the summer of 2021 was one of the busiest the restaurant had seen in the six years since it opened. With outdoor dining and a full rooftop deck, the Main Street restaurant had to staff up. Though the front of house staff — servers, food runners and bartenders — have their hands full in the busy restaurant, even when fully staffed, Moore said  the kitchen was short-handed throughout the summer. 

According to Jamie Parker, general manager for the Longmont BeauJo’s, she’d seen more new and inexperienced people joining the restaurant industry in both the front and back of the house. Some hated it and didn’t last long, others loved it and discovered a new passion, but it’s proved challenging. 

“As a manager, I don’t think I’ve done as much on the floor as I have now,” Parker said.

Finding staff with experience was a challenge, but Moore said a willingness to bring in enthusiastic and untrained workers with a desire to learn helped shore up the light crew. Nomad Kitchen’s Chef Nate Say hires slowly to ensure a great fit and said he would rather train someone passionate and dedicated whether or not they have experience.

“Attitude goes a long way,” Say said. “I’m not necessarily looking for someone with any experience whatsoever, because it’s all trainable.”

Financial incentives are one key, according to Moore. The Roost starts kitchen staff at $15 an hour, more with previous experience in kitchens. Both BeauJo’s and Nomad Kitchen also start their kitchen staff well above minimum wage, according to their respective management, along with bonuses for new hires. According to Parker, BeauJo’s owner Chip Bair offers bi-yearly raises to the staff and monthly bonuses based on sales, with no cap to how high staff salaries can go if they stick it out long-term.

Nomad Kitchen started out as a food truck business before finding a permanent home at 300 Suns.Say still uses the truck to great effect, bringing new opportunities for his line cooks and bringing in increased revenue streams that can help maintain the financial health of the business. During the height of the pandemic, Say organized food truck pop-ups in neighborhoods, along with ice cream vendors and other trucks, to meet people where they lived when it wasn’t safe to congregate indoors.

“We hit the streets and found a way to survive and thrive through a not so great situation,” Say laughed. 

While financial incentives and a livable wage are beyond important, these restaurants add in perks that go past medical benefits and paid time off to show employees that they are valued. The Roost offers its employees perks like yoga classes, gym memberships and chiropractic appointments to promote well-being. BeauJo’s employee perks go beyond free pizza to include ski passes in the winter and other opportunities, Parker said.

More changes are likely to come for restaurants within Longmont, but also across the country.

“I think we’re going to see a big change in the restaurant business, because employees are setting higher expectations for themselves. And the expectations of employers are higher,” Moore said. “We’re conscientious of those changes and I think we’re ahead of the curve in embracing these changes. You can treat people right, pay them well and still have profit if you do it right.”

Parker echoed Moore’s sentiments, hoping that culture and pay can continue to improve for the industry as a whole.

“I’m hoping the environment for restaurants will change soon and they can be a more fair place to work for everyone,” Parker said. “The food sells itself, but having a staff that wants to be there is important. This is the time to change, so we might as well.”

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