Topekans are going out to eat more. Staffing shortages have restaurants struggling to meet the demand.

Brianna Childers
Topeka Capital-Journal
Megan Rice, server at Weller's Grill and Bar, 222 N.W. Independence Ave., preps drinks for customers along with one other server over the lunch hour Tuesday. Rice said they employ six servers but had 10-12 before the pandemic.

Ryan Jennings, owner of Weller's Grill and Bar, has attempted to hire an additional six or seven employees to join the staff over the past two months.

Jennings couldn't get any of them to show up for their first day of work.

"It's unfortunate, but I think everybody — with the stimulus, unemployment — it doesn't make financial sense for a lot of people to come back to work," he said.

Jennings has about 24 full- and part-time employees working at the restaurant, 222 N.W. Independence Ave., but could use more help. Instead, Jennings is working more than usual to pick up the slack so his staff members aren't pulling double shifts and working overtime.

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Labor shortages at restaurants are an industry-wide problem that has been occurring since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that patrons are dining in more, local establishments are struggling to meet the demand.

"With the economy opening back up and everybody having extra money, I would venture to say most restaurants and bars are experiencing a bit of a boom with sales," Jennings said. "We are in the middle of having a record-breaking month ourselves."

Wellers Grill and Bar server Kara Serrantez handles customer orders with one other server.

Jennings said he would like to hire more but wants to make sure he isn't compromising the dedication and quality of work his employees bring to the table. 

"We really take pride in what we do here, so it's difficult to just hire anybody off of the street," Jennings said. "We end up putting more pressure on the existing employees, at least in the short run."

If business returns to a normal pace and the boom in sales slows, Jennings said, he wouldn't worry as much about hiring more people. But when and if that happens isn't certain.

"Right now, I think everybody in the service industry is feeling overworked," Jennings said. "It's definitely put a strain on the employees just in general."

Downtown Topeka restaurants can't hire enough staff

That sentiment rings true for staff members at The Pennant, 915 S. Kansas Ave., and Iron Rail Brewing, 705 S. Kansas Ave., where employees are working overtime hours and double shifts just to meet customer demand.

"To some extent, I'm burning out a lot of the staff I have," said Seth Wagoner, CEO of AIM Strategies. "They are very good people. Our service has still been really strong, but we have a lot of people that are working doubles and other things just to keep the lights on and make sure people are doing well."

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Wagoner said the two restaurants have their core of good employees but are in need of more people to apply for jobs. The two restaurants have just more than 100 employees but are looking for 25 to 30 additional employees to meet the need.

That is why AIM, which owns The Pennant and Iron Rail, is holding a hiring event in the near future at Iron Rail.

"It's five hours that people can come in. They can get immediate interviews. We tell them about AIM," Wagoner said. "We've had different days when our managers are doing nothing but interviewing people all day."

Managers say people are scheduling interviews and not showing up

Similar to Weller's, Paisano's, 4043 S.W. 10th Ave., is experiencing people applying for jobs and not showing up for the interview.

Brian Grosfield, general manager at Paisano's, said the shortage has been difficult for the restaurant and caused longer wait times for guests. It has been difficult to keep the doors open, he said.

The restaurant employs about 38 people but needs 50-55. Paisano's is hiring for all positions.

More:We asked Topekans which now-closed restaurants they miss the most. Here's what they said.

Grosfield said he does his best to work with employees on schedules, so they don't experience burnout.

"If anything, some of our managers will take tables to help out so we're not experiencing burnout," Grosfield said.

For the employees who are working overtime and experiencing burnout, Wagoner said, The Pennant and Iron Rail managers try to work with staff members' schedules and determine who could use the time off.

At Weller's, Jennings is trying his best to encourage his staff while being proactive and help out where he can. Arriving to the restaurant early and staying late is imperative, he said.

"I'm trying to avoid (burnout) by not putting any extra pressure on them," Jennings said.  "The only real pressure they are facing is going from six, seven months of low sales to now when you're cooking it's much busier.

"It's basically like you got out of shape of being busy, and now that it's back, you're prepared but your body is out of shape essentially."