FORT LAUDERDALE — Want to work at a restaurant during a pandemic? If the answer’s “no,” would $400 cash change your mind?
South Florida restaurants are so desperate to fill critical jobs they are taking a page from the playbook of Silicon Valley headhunters: signing bonuses.
Social-media users might’ve spotted restaurants’ recent all-caps advertisements on Facebook and Instagram: A “$200 hiring bonus” at Riverside Hotel in downtown Fort Lauderdale, seeking entry-level servers and shift managers. Blocks west on the New River, seafood restaurant Rivertail has offered a “$250 signing bonus,” hoping to fill seven jobs. Around the corner, Mexican eatery Bodega Taqueria y Tequila promises the biggest sign-on bonus of all: $400.
Andrew Walker could hardly turn down Bodega Taqueria’s tantalizing offer to become a prep cook and collect hundreds in cash after spotting the ad on Facebook.
The 23-year-old student needed a reliable job with flexible hours since moving from New York to Fort Lauderdale in January to finish his GED. “I was like, ‘Uh, I could use $400.’ Let’s do it,” says Walker. “I get a lot of respect here. I like being in the kitchen.”
Walker admits he probably would have kept scrolling past Bodega had the cash incentive not caught his eye. “I think it’s a great idea,” he says. “It’s bad times out there and this gives workers extra money they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Hospitality experts argue the drought in employees can be explained with three theories: fear of returning to closed spaces during a pandemic, ex-employees leaving the restaurant world for good, and the ease of collecting unemployment benefits.
Emi Guerra, whose Breakwater Hospitality Group operates the Wharf in downtown Fort Lauderdale, thinks it’s the last one that’s driving the staff shortages. Despite falling unemployment numbers in Florida new applicants aren’t calling him back, and new hires simply aren’t showing up for work.
“There’s definitely some truth to people becoming jaded and lazy (in the pandemic),” says Guerra. “Here’s how it works: We’ll get over 100 applications for one position. We’ll call back 30 of them to see if we can schedule a face-to-face job interview, and of those, we’ll get through to maybe eight. Six or seven will be no-shows and you’ll maybe get one person to show up.”
This started happening in March at Rivertail, the seafood restaurant Guerra co-owns with chef Jose Mendin. Being short seven employees forced him to cut dining capacity in half and turn away paying customers. Out of desperation, he offered a signing bonus of $250, any position, with a single string attached: The cash was payable only after 90 days of employment.
“We were purposely taking fewer tables so we could handle the volume. We had to find a creative way to fill in the staffing gaps,” Guerra says.
But has Guerra’s gambit been successful? Not really, he says.
“I don’t know if it’s moved the needle a lot,” he says. “We definitely did get an increase in applicants but it hasn’t solved the problem.”
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A National Restaurant Association survey released in February found there were 2.5 million fewer restaurant jobs nationwide as of Dec. 1 than during the same period a year earlier. Meanwhile, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association estimates 600,000 Florida workers were laid off and 10,000 restaurants were forced to close. Statistics released by the U.S. Department of Labor in late March showed that fewer than half of those lost jobs have returned.
In mid-March, facing 17 vacant jobs at Bodega Taqueria y Tequila and 15 more at its sister location in Miami Beach, the restaurant’s human resources director, Adriana Tecedor, came up with a radical idea: $100 signing bonuses for new employees.
“At first we weren’t getting any traction, nothing,” Tecedor says. “Then we jacked it up to $400, and boom. Lots of applications fly in. It catches people’s attention. As long as our incentive is higher than anyone else, they’ll come to us before taking another opportunity.”
Along with Walker, the cash helped Tecedor recruit several new employees, half of them poached from the kitchens of other South Florida restaurants, she says. New hires must stay employed at least 30 days to receive a third of their signing bonus (about $133), and 90 days to collect the full $400.
“We are pushing every boundary possible because I’ve never seen a job market so bad,” she says. “Just like it’s a seller’s market in real estate, it’s an employee’s market for restaurants. From our perspective, they’re making a decent of amount of money staying home (on unemployment) and not working.”
The slump in willing job candidates has stressed out restaurateur Anesh Bodasing for months. There are two weeks left until his fast-casual eatery Tiffin Box – which he likens to a “Chipotle but with Indian food” – debuts inside the Delray Beach Market food hall. But Bodaseng is short nine employees to staff the new location so, worried about opening on time, he decided to offer a $150 referral bonus to existing employees to recruit fresh faces.
“I’m trying not to panic right now because everyone’s in the same kind of boat,” says Bodasing, whose staff consists mostly of high-school students. “A lot of people don’t realize how short-staffed restaurants are. No one’s coming in. If I don’t fill those jobs in two weeks we’ll have to run a skeleton crew in Delray to make it happen.”
His kiosk inside the Delray Beach Market, though much smaller than his flagship Tiffin Box in West Palm Beach, requires more staff to handle the food hall’s seven-day-a-week schedule. Bodasing says he plans to introduce $200 cash bonuses for new hires.
“It’s a ridiculous thing to me. Say I hire five employees in 90 days. I have to pay $1,000. That’s insane,” Bodasing says. “I know there are people who legitimately need unemployment money. But there are also a lot of people under 30 who should go back, too, and they’re not, because their stimulus outweighs what they could earn in a restaurant.”
Samantha Garcia, 17, is now $300 richer after referring two of her high-school friends to work at Tiffin Box. The extra cash will help the West Palm Beach server pay her parents’ bills and replace the tires on her car.
“This money’s going to inspire a lot of people to get their jobs back,” Garcia says. “People my age or a bit older can work, but a majority of people are being lazy right now.”