Lopez restaurateurs struggle to house their employees

  • Sun Jul 8th, 2018 1:30am
  • Life

By Gretchen Wing

Special to the Weekly

In the tiny, vibrant kitchen at the heart of Vortex Restaurant, Jean Perry is ladling out the rich, savory soups of the day. In her 23rd year as owner, she would love to have a day off but she can’t keep employees long enough to fill the highly trained manager-cook position Vortex requires. Her workers can’t find a place to live.

At Vita’s Wildly Delicious, it’s Friday night wine-tasting, and owner Bruce Botts is talking wine. Musicians fill the brand-new events stage, diners fill the eclectic tables and chairs, and the scents of grilled panini and blooming lilacs fill the air. In his eighth season, Botts would like to open his doors for more days and weeks, but he cannot find housing for the staff he wants to hire.

At 4:30 in the morning, Holly B’s Bakery is already toasty and smelling of brown sugar and raspberries. Stephanie Smith, in her third season as owner of the 43-year-old bakery, mixes mulitgrain bread dough while her assistants churn out blueberry scones and puffy croissants. By 6:45 customers are peering in, thrilled to find the bakery opening on a Thursday. Till mid-June, Smith has only been able to open Fridays through Mondays, due to lack of staff—or rather, housing for staff.

Both bar and restaurant of The Galley are packed, and the staff of Jeff Nichols, 17-year owner, are scrambling to serve up juicy cheeseburgers and halibut burritos with mango salsa to the throng. The sign outside reads, “Now hiring all positions.”

Three of these four owners of Lopez establishments voice a common refrain: business suffers from their inability to house the workers they’d like to attract and keep. Jean Perry says, “For quite a few years we were open Monday through Saturday, 10 to 7, and for a few years also on Sunday from 10 to 3. We are now open 10 to 3 Wednesday through Saturday. This is a difference of 39 hours per week—a direct outcome of lack of personnel, particularly long-term, experienced workers.”

While Nichols attributes The Galley’s understaffing to other issues than just housing, he adds, “I could certainly hire more folks if there were more rentals available.”

Botts agrees, saying, “Right now I have an employee living in my house and another in a small bedroom above Vita’s. I’m happy to have them, but I think both would prefer a more independent situation.”

Smith echoes this complaint: “Every summer when college kids come back to work, I’m scouring around to find them a cabin or room to live in.” Some stay on family property or with friends, but such housing is sometimes little more than a roof. Smith says, “We’ve had several employees living without running water and/or the ability to cook.” She often finds her employees preoccupied by the basic issues of self-care and feeding after a hard shift in the bakery.

The problem, says Perry, goes beyond summer workers. “The more devastating decline has been in folks who actually live on the island and wish to work steadily, over time. One of the reasons I originally chose to be open year-round was for the sake of employees who needed year-round livelihoods, as well as for the community’s need for sustenance beyond summer. But it is very difficult now to find people who have a place to live, want to work steadily, even part time, and plan to stay on the island—that is, a regular work force.”

Smith herself felt the housing squeeze when she and her husband bought Holly B’s in 2016. “When we moved here…we only had one option for long-term housing. It was much more than we were hoping to spend, and it only became available a few weeks before we took bakery ownership. We thought we were going to have to buy a travel trailer and live in the back parking lot of the bakery in February.”

While the business owners agree the problem seems to be worsening, they also share hopes of how an increase in housing options might improve their establishments.

Smith dreams of expanding staff: “We’ve been looking to hire a permanent baker and I think we could recruit someone to the island if affordable housing was available.” Botts would love to host even more crowd-pleasing events at Vita’s, like Taverna Tuesdays.

But Perry worries that the restaurateurs’ problems are only the tip of the iceberg. “People with second homes here require services. Retirees require services. There are evermore people to provide services to, and ever-fewer people to provide those services…and I feel that food establishments like Vortex are probably feeling the crunch first, with housing being the critical benchmark.” Like Nichols, Perry recognizes that other trends contribute to the labor shortage, such as young Lopezians leaving the island and not returning. But, she affirms, “The labor pool for transitional workers is very directly tied to available housing.”