During the pandemic, things were so slow at Catcher's, a seasonal restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, that owner Roland Buckingham and his son, Paynter, had to find ways to pass the time between filling takeout orders of crab legs and shrimp tacos.
"Basically, my son and I sat at a chessboard and did a couple of orders a night," says Buckingham, who whittled down his staff of 20 to a skeleton crew during the depths of the pandemic.
Buckingham now faces a new, albeit welcome challenge. Thanks to the CDC's surprise easing of mask and social distancing restrictions last week, vaccinated customers are returning in droves to businesses once hit hardest by the pandemic, such as gyms, restaurants, spas, and others in the travel and hospitality industries. Catcher's sales are up 100 percent compared with the late spring of 2019, as customers are splurging on missed in-person experiences, like shared meals with friends.
However, the restaurant currently has just six employees. What's more, Buckingham's typical talent pool has dried up, as so many businesses have begun scrambling to staff up.
"We're just biting the bullet and making as much food as we can make," he says.
Buckingham's problems aren't unique. Pent-up demand for in-person services and experiences has led to sudden nationwide hiring difficulties, mirroring the troubles businesses in spring break hotspots saw in March. The National Restaurant Association reported that 84 percent of restaurant operators said their staffing levels were lower than what they would normally be in the absence of Covid-19.
To cope, business owners are trying to patch their talent gaps with quick fixes like pricing changes, tech additions, staff initiatives, and more.
If you can't increase sales, increase prices.
As demand began to spike for John Manison's two education businesses, Sailfish Swim School and Apex Tutors, the L.A.-based founder couldn't find the talent to scale his business.
At the swim school, many customers are currently on a wait list, and Manison says the business is bringing in 70 to 80 percent less revenue than it would if it were better staffed.
The situation at the tutoring company, which brings in about $20,000 a month, isn't quite as bad; however, Manison and his general manager are spending more and more time tutoring students when they should be growing the business.
In the short term, Manison had to find a way to capitalize on new business while also facing serious employee shortages. So the founder raised prices, to about 20 percent higher than his closest competitor. In the first five months of 2021, both companies more than doubled their 2020 income.
The change has allowed him to pay his employees $5 more per hour than his competitor, he says, but he's hesitant to go further. Manison believes higher prices will turn customers away, and then word will spread and negatively affect the business.
To help balance the price change, Manison has homed in on creating more value for his current customer base, rather than trying to growing sales. "If you focus on providing great service to your current customer base," he says, "they will stand by you through thick and thin. Loyalty begets loyalty."
Give employees new ways to shine.
During the pandemic, many massage-industry employees retired early or decided the job was too risky, according to Beret Ann Loncar, founder and owner of Body Mechanics Orthopedic Massage in New York City. Those who kept working often received offers from larger spa companies, which had the resources to offer better pay or benefits, she says. As demand for spa services has recently picked up, Loncar has prioritized keeping her 13 employees happy and engaged by allowing them to use their talents outside of their main roles. Today, this means that Loncar's massage therapists also create content for the spa's social media and company blog.
"I think it makes for a much more well-rounded job, probably will help with burnout, and makes people feel valued and respected that they are an active part of the company," she says. "We are saying 'Look, a staff member, made this!' and putting it out publicly."
Let tech lighten the load.
Yassine Lamari, founder of Las Vegas men's formal wear company Gentleman's Guru, cut his workforce in half last year after formal events like proms and weddings were canceled. With the CDC loosening recommendations on large gatherings for vaccinated folks, Lamari is working overtime to keep up with the sudden demand, all while trying to hire and train new staff.
To improve the efficiency of his current operations, Lamari invested in an algorithm that automates his inventory management and predicts when and how much product to buy, including sizes and style variations. He says the tool will calculate past sales of an item, for example, and then anticipate how long that stock will last. To lighten the load on his 12-person staff, he's also working on adding a new system that will automate some customer service tasks, including filing returns and shipping tracking.
"Even though there's so much stress to deal with," Lamari says, "I'm actually very thankful."