Worker shortage leaves restaurant owners scrambling ahead of busy season

SEATTLE -- There's a crisis in the kitchen at restaurants across the Puget Sound region.

From managers to dishwashers, a worker shortage is affecting almost everyone in the industry as owners prepare for the busy summer season.

In December 2018, western Washington had roughly 6,500 restaurant worker openings, but less than 1,400 people applied for those jobs. It's hitting Seattle restaurants especially hard, but the problem is felt beyond the city limits.

"We try to ask everybody, 'What's your biggest problem right now?' I don't have a single employee that wouldn't tell you it's staffing -- selecting, equipping, training. The aspects of staffing really are creating stress," said Roger Stilson, president of the Specialty Restaurant group that owns, among others, Mama Stortini's.

"It's not enough applicants, period," he said.

Patrick Yearout, head of recruitment for Ivar's restaurant company, said the worker shortage is a relatively new phenomena that's developed over the past three years.

The issue is tied to some familiar problems plaguing the region.

"Obviously, the cost of living in the city is an issue, and transportation getting into the city is harder," Yearout said.

Yearout also attributes the shortage to the increase in restaurants across the region.

"There are a lot more restaurants in town, which has spread it a little thinner," Yearout said. "There are more opportunities."

Stilson, with Specialty Restaurant Group, said company wide, he is looking to fill 15 positions. When the restaurant group's next venture opens south of Seattle, he'll need over 100 more employees for the new restaurant.

"That's the one keeping me up at night," Stilson said.

If hiring doesn't increase, customers could start to see the shortage impacting their menu choices, Yearout said.

"It can be challenging on managers to run short-staffed," he said. "We might have to make some menu adjustments to accommodate for the lack of people."

Ivar's will start hiring the vast majority of its workers in March to prepare for the busy summer season.

Yearout said a common misconception is that experience is what will land you the job.

"I think one of the biggest qualities we look for is people with positive attitudes.  Hopefully that positive attitude will keep the applicants coming through the door," he said.