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Ashley Bulmer, owner of Big Apple Bagels, working in the front of house on Monday, Oct. 25, when the shop was short staffed with only three employees as they return to full hours of operation from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Staffing shortages are current hurdle for local service industry

Local business owners in the restaurant and service industry had to abruptly adapt how their businesses function at the start of pandemic shutdowns in March 2020. But that problem largely meant orders and sales were down, and there were too many workers. Now there are too few, and that is causing local business owners to either close or restrict hours.

Big Apple Bagels owner Ashley Bulmer said that sales took a nosedive of 70% at the start of the pandemic in 2020, and she had to adapt her business to include delivery, online ordering and in-store pickup options when indoor dining closed.

“It was a lot of navigating. … Trying to navigate different ways to bring customers in; to bring our product to customers without exhausting all of the resources that we had,” Bulmer said.

Because of staffing shortages, Bulmer had to restrict hours a second time in mid-August, and the business just returned to its normal operating hours on Monday, Oct. 25.

“It was just a roller-coaster. That’s the best way I can describe it, and honestly it still kind of is a roller-coaster,” Bulmer said.

At Big Apple Bagel, it takes about five employees to efficiently run the store, with three in the front of the house helping customers and two making orders in the back. However, one employee quit on Monday, leaving their shift open and only three employees running the store.

Bulmer said for peak business operations, she would employ about 25 workers.

“Oh, my gosh, I think at one point I only had eight [employees],” she said about the pandemic’s second-wave shutdown this fall.

She’s making do right now with 15. She recalled one day during its already restricted schedule, on Thursday, Sept. 20, that she was not prepared for: She had to close the doors due to only having two workers, herself included.

“I made the tough decision to close the store completely that day. And I absolutely — ugh it was terrible. It was terrible. … I was not expecting to ever have to do that,” Bulmer said.

Bulmer said the severe lack of staff this fall was a result of lacking normal staff to work during the school day when high schoolers returned to in-person classes this fall — which she worked around last year with virtual learning.

“They [the parents] were very generous in letting me have their students here at the store during the day when I needed them,” Bulmer explained about how she worked with high school students’ parents and virtual learning schedules last year to have students work during the virtual school day.

Despite ongoing challenges, Bulmer is back to full hours of operation since she hired new staff members to cover the mid-shift position from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“It’s a position where those people are taking care of basically the middle-day operations of the store, which is what I was lacking,” Bulmer said.

Bill Olson, owner of Scandia Pizzeria, said he experienced staffing shortages almost immediately when one of his managers quit near the start of the pandemic. That left his son, unsustainably, running the business for 40 to 50 hours a week, prior to cutting hours, according to Olson.

“We have to [cut hours] — nobody wants to work the hours that that other lady manager worked. So until we can find somebody, we’re kind of stuck,” Olson said.

The pizza shop adjusted hours to be between 4 to 8 p.m. every day, decreasing hours to about 28 a week, what he says is more manageable for the team of about seven or eight employees right now. His typical staff size is around five employees; however, additional help was needed for the production of food as well as adapting to curbside pickup and delivery options to accommodate the customer without indoor dining.

Comparably, Kari Olson, the owner of Kodiak Coffee, also restricted hours the past few months to close at 4 p.m. due to staffing shortages.

“It was just me working with one other person, and working every day all day kind of wears on a person. So I shortened the hours then, and then it just kind of stuck,” she said.

She said she typically employs seven or eight people and is at that employment capacity right now. However, she will remain on the restricted hours, which she typically does for the winter when business slows down.

She experienced the shortage during the summer when she lost a few workers and struggled to fill positions afterward.

“Usually I can just, you know, within a week or so get applications and hire people, but it took a little bit longer,” Kari Olson said.

Despite the challenges to find and hire staff members, Kari Olson at Kodiak and Bill Olson at Scandia Pizzeria, who are not related, said they noticed an uptick in business, due to the temporary or permanent closures of other similar places.

“We’re probably one of the very few that actually profited and had very good business because we never had to close down,” Kari Olson said.

Since Kodiak only closed the dining room and not its drive-thru, she thought customers turned to her business when other shops closed. She believes it converted people to continue supporting her shop even when other places reopened.

Similarly, Bill Olson said last summer and the fall of 2020 was a “very busy” time for him to fulfill takeout orders when other restaurants’ dining rooms closed. He is thankful for the increase of business, but it’s tiring with a lack of staff to properly accommodate.

“It’s good, but it wears you out,” he said.

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