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Restaurants and hotels struggle to find staffing, patience from community requested


Although COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, Laguna’s hospitality industry faces a new challenge – staff shortages – and just when the Festival of Arts, Sawdust Festival, and Art-A-Fair are set to open.

It’s no secret that restaurants are struggling with staffing. There are just not enough servers, bartenders, and cooks to fill all of the open positions in town (or anywhere in the U.S. for that matter). 

To add to the already desperate situation, reports say that hospitality workers are leaving the industry due to hostility from customers regarding long waits and what they consider less than adequate service.

When will staffing levels return to normal?

According to, among restaurant operators, 28 percent said they think it will be seven to 12 months before staffing returns to normal. Twenty percent believe it will take more than a year, while 10 percent say staffing levels will never bounce back to where they were.

When do our local restaurants and hotels anticipate staffing might return to normal? 

“It’s going to take some time for businesses to be fully staffed as they are struggling to find employees, and I’m not sure we’ll get back to normal staffing levels any time soon,” says Ashley Johnson, president and CEO of Visit Laguna Beach. “It appears that many of the employees who were laid off or furloughed when COVID hit, have either found other industries to work in, or are waiting for their unemployment benefits to run out. We are seeing many open positions across all departments, in the hospitality industry, specifically. Many operators, locally, are offering hiring bonuses, increased rates of pay, employee lunches, bonuses, and other incentives. Unfortunately, the guest experience is suffering (i.e., limited/no turn downs, later check-in times, restaurant reservations only) due to the lack of staffing and many employees are working overtime to cover additional shifts.”

“Possibly by the end of the year,” says The Ranch General Manager Kurt Bjorkman. “We lost about 20 percent of our staff.” 

Restaurants and Harvest

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of The Ranch

Harvest Restaurant at The Ranch

To that end, Bjorkman adds, “We’ll need to communicate that we have an amazing workplace, inclusive and supportive – fun and engaging. We have to separate ourselves from companies that are just looking for positions to fill and not people to join a close-knit organization.”

Lindsay Smith, owner and chef of Nirvana Grille, says, “I think it’s going to take longer than that.”

They lost almost all their staff. “The second shutdown hurt us more than the others. We closed four months, and the staff had to move on.”

Smith spends more time now out on the floor (although it’s part of her new model to be out on the floor to stay connected with patrons), and she also pitches in wherever help is needed. “I was at the restaurant until 12:30 a.m. over the weekend washing dishes and always stay until midnight.”

Lack of kitchen help 

Evidently, kitchen help is the most difficult to find. “We’ve gone through three dishwashers in a few months. I have a full-time person looking for employees and scheduling interviews.”

What makes it even more unfortunate is the competition.

“We are all competing for the same people!” Bjorkman says. “It’s becoming incredibly difficult – as our guests are back with enthusiasm (thank goodness).” 

Smith has closed Nirvana’s full sit-down bar because of the lack of a bartender, and she won’t increase the 50 percent seating capacity due to the staff shortage. The same applies to the patio, which seats 40 and may not open.

“Then it happens that someone has car trouble or some emergency, and we’re short-staffed even further due to that,” she says. “I try to communicate to patrons right in the beginning that it might be a longer than normal wait – that’s key.”

Restaurants and Nirvana

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Nirvana Grille lost most of its staff during the pandemic

“I’m paying the kitchen and other staff more all around which keeps revenue down – that’s just one of the challenges at the moment.”

Even though customers are noticing restaurants are straining to serve them, it’s not affecting business. 

“We are very busy and thankful for that!” says Bjorkman. “Once we were allowed to open our doors, we had a lot of happy and eager guests ready to return – we cannot be more grateful for that. I don’t think that is preventing them from going out – we are seeing record numbers (please keep coming)! The challenge is trying to serve our guests with fewer resources. It’s not just staffing, supplies are harder and more expensive to get, and lead times on certain items are really long.”

How to replace those who are leaving

If many do leave the hospitality industry as is being reported, it may open the door to a new career for others.

“It can be frustrating – but if we (the industry) do our jobs correctly, we can introduce a lot of new people into what is an incredibly rewarding career,” says Bjorkman. “Serving others is not for everyone – but for those for whom it inspires, it is an incredibly enriching career. Not just for management positions – the happiest and most amazing people in the hotel industry are found on the line level – that amazing concierge who has been at the same property for 20 years, they have an incredible life! The groundskeeper who has been taking care of the golf course for 40 years and sent three kids to college…The list goes on, every good hotel has a collection of amazing career-minded people who love to serve others! We need more of them.”

Kindness, please!

If ever there was a need for even tempers and tolerance, it is now.

“As businesses work to reopen effectively and return to normal staffing levels, I would like to encourage customers to be patient, as these businesses are doing all they can to ensure you have a memorable stay,” says Johnson. “Please keep in mind that many of these employees have stuck around throughout COVID-19, so I hope patrons will show their appreciation by tipping the hardworking employees who have chosen to be here.”

Bjorkman emphasizes that they are there to be of service. “I would ask that you have patience with those of us in the restaurant and hotel industries – we are ready to SERVE you (emphasis on the capital letters), but we just don’t have the same resources we did in 2019. We will get there – in the meantime, we will continue to do everything we can (from the local coffee shops to the luxury resorts) to make your experience exceptional, warm, and authentically Laguna Beach!”

“We want diners at Nirvana Grille to have a wonderful dining experience, enjoy themselves, and be comfortable. Most of those who come in say how nice it is to get out,” adds Smith.

So please give a little leeway to the restaurants in town as they get through this, and they will – if you can’t get a reservation or you see open tables but they won’t seat you – this is why.

Both Smith and Bjorkman agree, “We need our locals to understand we are doing our best.”


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