Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: The Restaurant Industry at a Crossroads | Columnists

LENOX — At the risk of prematurely flying the “Mission Accomplished” banner, it may be safe to ask whether the coronavirus pandemic is now a sight in the rearview mirror, at least in the Berkshires and the rest of largely vaccinated New England.

You can tell by the heavy traffic on our roads: locals are out, visitors and part-time residents are back in full force, even before the high season, hotels and hostels fill up with hard-to-book reservations. get. for the best summer weekends. Airbnb and other online bookings are running at full speed.

Diners flock to the restaurants in happy pairs and groups, both on the terraces and indoors, and the conviviality is on point. But the restaurant industry is in upheaval, at least temporarily. The staff shortage is acute, although it may be easing a bit now that local students are out of school and out of college. Opening days and hours are reduced. Prices increase. The supply chain, especially for beef and chicken, has short-term bottlenecks.

“We’re paying everyone more and our profits are still lower than they were before, which were low,” says Paul Turano, owner of restaurants in the western suburbs of Boston. “Things got so crazy.”

There’s good news for beleaguered restaurateurs and their staff: Governor Charlie Baker has signed a bill extending some pandemic policies. Restaurants are allowed to sell cocktails, wine and beer until May 1, 2022. Takeout and delivery drinks must be sold at the same prices as those consumed on the premises.

The special permits for the outdoor dining expansion, which would have expired in mid-August, are now valid until April 1, 2022. They are expected to be made permanent. Outdoor dining spanning patios and stretches of sidewalks has taken Berkshire County by storm. But, safety concerns must be considered for pedestrians, motorists and emergency service vehicles; designated “food parks” are ideal where possible.

The deep-rooted issues that make restaurant work unattractive for many current and future employees remain entrenched. Here are some suggestions for improvements:

• Home delivery and take-out of meals cooked in restaurants are becoming commonplace, but third-party delivery charges eat into meager profits and need to be capped.

• Customers may have to accept higher menu prices for a time, to accurately reflect increased food and staff costs.

• Tips, which should be at least 20% of the check net, should be lumped in with “backhouse” employees who earn only slightly above minimum wage in the kitchen. Massachusetts law prohibits management from requiring sharing of tips, except between servers, couriers, and duty bartenders. Certainly, employers and managers should be excluded from gratuities, as required by law. But the inequity that excludes cooks and dishwashers, among others, must be corrected.

• Below the level of “executive chef,” line cooks and others in the kitchen are often only paid several dollars an hour above minimum wage (currently $13.50 in Massachusetts). This is the main reason why the shortage of personnel “in the rear” is so acute. Employers will have to increase pay in order to be able to return to pre-pandemic schedules. That is, if they can afford it and are willing to pass some costs on to customers.

• Diners will need to be more patient with first-time servers learning the menu and wine list, as well as longer than usual wait times for dine-in or prep time for take-out orders.

• The minimum wage for Massachusetts employees who earn more than $20 per month in tips is $5.55 per hour. Servers in high-end restaurants can do just fine, but where menu prices are lower, that’s a different story.

To acquire enough servers, owners may need to raise the minimum, provide more flexibility, and post schedules in advance for workers with childcare issues or responsibilities for elderly family members. Consider at least a minimum wage of $15, plus shared tips for everyone below management level.

• Staff shortages should not be blamed solely on the unemployment benefit bonus, which was well justified during the pandemic and which will disappear in September. There are hostile work environments in some places, burnout is a factor, and most importantly, salary differentials within a facility are intolerable. Remember that restaurant workers cannot work from home and are often not eligible for paid vacations, sick days, health insurance and other benefits taken for granted in other places. other areas.

• If customers are disappointed with their experience at a restaurant, instead of posting a nasty and hurtful review online, take a few breaths and talk to the owner or manager. Kindness reaps rewards.

Conclusion: Some owners say the restaurant industry is a broken system, even before the pandemic. In some areas, much of the workforce is undocumented, with fearful immigrants lacking leverage or agency to address inequalities.

If the industry is a house of cards built on overworked and grossly underpaid staff, a new foundation is needed to shore it up so customers can enjoy the summer when life is supposed to be easy but still a struggle. for those who work long and hard to support themselves and their families.

Information from the Boston Globe and the State House News Service has been included in this report.

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Cecil N. Messick