BILLINGS — If you've gone to almost any Billings restaurant over the last two years, you've likely seen a "Help Wanted" sign. Staffing shortages have plagued the industry nationwide, which makes Chick-fil-A's goal of hiring 130 employees for its new Billings location all that more eyebrow-raising.
Downtown restaurant Stacked had to suspend its dinner service in July, largely because of an employee shortage. It's back as of this week, but owner Stephen Hindman knows the industry is facing an uphill battle.
"I don’t think there’s ever going to be an end to it," Hindman said.
It’s an ominous sentence, but a realistic one. The COVID-19 pandemic has likely changed American restaurants forever.
"Everybody is short-handed," Hindman added. "Everybody is battling."
Hindman made the decision back in late July to offer just lunch at his downtown restaurant, but that’s not what Stacked was built for.
"It’s a tough situation because you design a restaurant this size to need so many sales per square foot," he said. "The numbers don’t work if you’re only open for lunch."
He was thrilled to put a "Now Open for Dinner" sign out front again Wednesday— 4.5 months later— after finding enough of what he calls the "right kind" of employees. But he knows he’s not in the clear.
"It is a worrisome trend," Hindman said. "Not only did labor get more expensive, but just turning on a light switch got more expensive."
Carverss Brazilian Steakhouse turned on a lot of lights in the fall. The new West End restaurant opened on Oct. 27 with 65 new employees.
"I like how the restaurant worked," said server Chelsea Powers. "It was something different and new."
Powers took the job after years out of the industry. She’s still going strong because of her new co-workers.
"It’s fun no matter what," she said. "I can come in completely grumpy and the people here, they help me.”
"We're always working as a team, so I like that. It's not like everything is only on you," added bartender Levi Neufeld.
Neufeld came to Carverss from a different restaurant in Missoula, where he says staffing shortages are even worse.
"The housing and the market, people just can't afford to live there," he said. "They're leaving jobs, these jobs that sometimes don't pay as well."
Both Neufeld and Powers say the money they make at Carverss is good and say many of the staff originally hired are still there because of a strong training program. But they’ve still had turnover and currently are hiring multiple positions. With fast food restaurants offering competing wages, this harder job is a hard sell.
"Great line cooks and wannabe chefs say, 'I make $20 an hour flipping burgers and dropping fries,'" Hindman said. "There's no pressure, and if I don’t like it that day, somebody else will hire me tomorrow."