Servers and kitchen staff are in short supply and high demand on Kodiak Island. It’s led some restaurants to delay their summer openings, take out tables – and even close on weekends, and it’s a statewide problem that’s hitting restaurants right as peak tourist season begins.
Mary Barber and her husband opened Olds River Inn, Restaurant and Brewery near the end of Kodiak’s road system back in 2011. It’s only open in the summer, and normally at this time of year, she says they’d be serving dinner five days a week and lunch on the weekends to intrepid road trippers – hungry after exploring the island’s furthest beaches. But this summer’s been a little different.
“Well, unfortunately we’re only able to be open Friday and Saturday evenings for dinner and we’re trying something new with brunch on Sundays,” said Barber.
The restaurant is extremely short staffed – for both front and back of the house positions. Barber says 10 people typically work for the restaurant each summer – right now, they have just 5 employees. Olds River offers wages starting at $25 an hour for kitchen staff – plus room and board – but Barber says they haven’t even received applicants.
That hasn’t dissuaded diners, however, who have kept coming. Barber says they had to take out tables and start recommending reservations. After navigating COVID, it’s incredibly frustrating, and she says cutting service ultimately cuts into their bottom line.
“The revenue we are getting right now due to not being able to open longer hours or staff, is less than when we first opened in 2011,” said Barber.
Olds River isn’t the only restaurant having a hard time finding summer employees. A popular Kodiak community Facebook page is filled with posts telling the same story – a diner that no longer offers lunch service, a brand new restaurant that closed the weekend after it opened – all due to staffing issues.
“I know another restaurant in town that thought about having to close on the weekends because they couldn’t get kitchen staff,” said Barber.
Neal Fried is an economist with Alaska’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development. He says staffing shortages aren’t unique to restaurants on Kodiak Island.
“I mean this is really a national thing, it’s not even an Alaska thing, but it does exist all over the state,” said Fried.
The “it” he’s referring to are worker shortages being pushed to the extreme in some industries because of record low unemployment. Alaska’s post-pandemic recovery has been slower than the rest of the country, but unemployment has been under 5% for more than three months – something Fried says hasn’t happened since the state started keeping records. That’s been going on for more than a year now, according to Fried, but summer hiring season in Alaska has exacerbated the problem.
“All of a sudden starting in the summertime, we need this giant workforce that we try and assemble every year and a lot of a part of that workforce comes from another part of the country and the rest of the country is experiencing labor shortages so it makes it more extreme up here,” said Fried.
And it’s not just the little guys feeling the hiring pinch. Raymond LeGrue opened Henry’s Great Alaskan Restaurant in downtown Kodiak about 30 years ago, and his family have owned restaurants on Kodiak Island since before statehood.
Staff make competitive wages, according to LeGrue, and he’s handed out bonuses to workers that made it through the pandemic. That’s been great for keeping staff over the years, says LeGrue. But 38 people work at Henry’s during the summer – and finding new workers has been challenging.
“We’ve got some people that have been there for 10 or 20 years, they don’t go to another restaurant,” he said. “But finding people who are energetic and willing to work and want to work and have some basic people skills – it’s not that easy anymore.”
Economist Fried says that’s partially true; when the job market is good – like it is now – workers tend to look for new jobs. And there are other forces at play, too. Some people have left the workforce altogether – maybe because of fear of COVID or to care for kids. Immigration has been going down at the same time as the rate of baby boomers retiring has increased – both pre-pandemic trends. Fried calls it all “odd” and “interesting,” and says economists are still trying to understand the post-pandemic dynamics.
For now, that’s little help to restaurant owners on Kodiak Island with “Help Wanted” signs hanging in their windows. Although, both Barber and LeGrue say they’re grateful for the customers that are still coming, and they’ll make it through.