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As N.H. Restaurants Struggle To Hire, Some In Industry See Chance for Change

photo of Willey sitting at booth
Todd Bookman/NHPR

In New Hampshire right now, there are more than 5,000 fewer restaurant workers than there were before the pandemic. Will they all come back?  

For 67 years, Hart's Turkey Farm Restaurant has had one item starring on its menu. 

“I make turkey in every way you can imagine,” explains Sim Willey, third generation owner of this Meredith institution. “Turkey piccata, turkey dinner, turkey croquettes, turkey nuggets.”

Hart’s is a big restaurant, seating about 600 diners at full capacity. On a busy day, Willey cooks and serves 100 40-lb turkeys, along with burgers, seafood and other family-dining staples. 

Most summers, Willey will operate Hart’s with 230 employees. But this year, he’s struggling to fill open positions.

“I’m approximately 100 short on my staff this year,” he says. 

Restaurants across the state are in the same position: emerging from the pandemic that limited their capacity for more than a year, but now struggling to hire enough people to prepare for what’s expected to be a busy summer.

This mismatch in the job market is pushing up wages. At Hart’s, starting salaries for dishwashers and other kitchen positions used to be $12 an hour, but are now $15-16, depending on the job. Even so, Willey says he’s lucky to get one applicant a week. 

There are a few reasons why restaurants like Hart’s are struggling to hire. One issue is simple demographics.

“We are a tourist destination — we don’t have a huge year round population to draw from,” he says. “So it has always been a struggle.”

Housing is also expensive in the region, though Willey owns a couple of apartment buildings that he rents to workers at reduced rates. 

In the past, he looked overseas to bring in workers on J-1 and H-2B visas, but those programs are limited right now due to COVID-19. 

This shortage has real consequences, he says, and could force him to close Hart’s a day or two per week, or perhaps not open for lunch some days. “Which I’d prefer not to do,” he adds.

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There’s one other factor that he and lots of other restaurateurs believe is impacting their ability to hire right now. Under the American Rescue Plan, the federal government is adding $300 a week to unemployment benefits for those who qualify. 

Many Republicans, including Gov. Chris Sununu, now believe those extra funds are keeping people out of the labor force. This week, Sununu announced he would end the additional payments on June 19th.

“Employers are opening up faster than we even envisioned,” said Sununu during a recent press conference. “And the need for that $300 incentive, or opportunity for folks not to have to be at work, the need for that is just drastically dwindling.”

But as COVID-19 era safety net programs end, some say that doesn’t guarantee people will come back to the restaurant industry. 

After being laid off during the shutdown last spring, many decided to find new careers. 

“They had some time off to think about what they wanted to do, and who they wanted to be, and where they wanted to spend their time,” explains Lilly Jan, a lecturer of food and beverage management at the Hotel School of Cornell University. “And the kind of emotional rewards they were getting from work. And I think a lot of people were reflecting and saying this isn’t necessarily where I want to go back to.”

photo of Lilly Jan
Credit Jesse Winter
Dr. Lilly Jan, a lecturer at Cornell University's The Hotel School, says many service workers feel undervalued.

Jan says many of her friends in the field are moving on to different careers, or finding other ways to work in the food business that don’t involve the grind of late nights. Plus, It's hard to work in a hot, tiny kitchen; hard to depend only on tips, with little prospect for a steady salary and benefits. 

Jan says service workers often feel undervalued.

“These are people who are there for consumers and guests on their best days: for weddings and anniversaries and proposals. On their worst days, for funerals and commiserating job losses and things like that. On all the days in between, when life is too hectic and you just need to grab a pizza from somewhere. These are the people that are there for you, in good times and bad times and stressful times,” she says. “But yet somehow we think they are only worth the literal minimum in compensation.”

The challenge, though, is that restaurants already run on thin margins, and customers may not want to spend more on meals to support higher wages. 

And remember, at Hart’s Turkey Farm Restaurant in Meredith, Willey has already boosted wages, but he still isn’t getting enough applicants.

“Through the pandemic, you are holding tight the whole time. This is my family’s business, this our legacy...and I just wanted to get through the pandemic,” he says. “And then all of a sudden, I’m like, oh my goodness, we are going to get through it, and then one day we are going to open. And now I don’t have a staff.”

Not enough staff will mean serving fewer customers — not something any restaurant wants to contemplate.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

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