Help needed: How the Rockford hospitality industry is addressing staff shortages – Rockford Register Star

ROCKFORD — Restaurateur Stephanie Caltagerone would gladly open the kitchen at her casual dining establishment Magpie six days a week if she could only find and retain enough employees.
“Servers and cooks. We are in dire need of cooks,” she said. “I think we’re in the same position as many restaurants.”
Like many other businesses in the hospitality industry, Magpie, 126 N. Madison St., has reduced its hours to compensate for a shortage of available workers.
Magpie is open for breakfast, brunch and lunch from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. The establishment also serves dinner on Friday from 4 p.m. until 9 p.m.
The restaurant’s staff of nine full and part-time employees is about half of its pre-pandemic level.
“At least two of my former employees have gone to work for Amazon during the pandemic,” Caltagerone said. “It’s stable. It’s not going to be affected if there are any future shutdowns or limitations on restaurants and, obviously, they can provide benefits that most restaurants can’t.”
Caltagerone said the availability of extended unemployment benefits is a primary contributor to the staff shortages in her industry.
Magpie’s lower level, which is available for private parties, receptions and business meetings, has helped generate revenue to help offset the restaurant’s reduced hours of operation, she said. 
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Across the Rock River and a few blocks to the south, Embassy Suites Hotel & Conference Center, 416 S. Main St., has also faced staffing challenges since the 160-room hotel first opened its doors in April 2020.
The hotel, which includes a restaurant and a rooftop deck, is about 80% staffed, according to general manager Fred DeLaRosa.
“We have positions open everywhere,” DeLaRosa said. “Food and beverage, housekeeping, front desk positions, engineering and maintenance. We also have management positions across the board due to the occupancy increase that we’re seeing.”
The Embassy Suites’ Tower Kitchen and Bar, which offers a view of Davis Park and the Rock River, is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. The hotel’s Top Lounge and Rooftop Deck, which features spectacular views of  the city, is open Friday through Sunday from 2 p.m. until 9 p.m.
“It’s really dependent upon business levels,” DeLaRosa said. “So, right now, it really isn’t in our best interests to have The Top (Lounge) open seven days a week.”
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Expanded access to child care benefits and changes to the nation’s immigration laws are potential solutions to the labor shortage in the hospitality industry, according to  Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia.
“During the pandemic, we lost a lot of workers to other industries like UPS, Amazon, the cannabis industry and third party delivery to name a few,” Toia said. “That’s why it’s so important that we try to look at immigration reform. One thing I’ve talked to Senator (Tammy) Duckworth about is to try to get working visas for hospitality workers similar to what they have for farm workers because we were running into a labor shortage even before the pandemic.”
As many as 20% of the state’s 25,000 restaurants and bars have closed their doors permanently since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association.
“Do I think we will recover? Yes,”  Toia said. “But, I think it’s going to be a good few years before we get back to 2018 and 2019 numbers.”
Hard Rock International is hiring about 250 employees for its temporary casino, which is slated to open in October at 610 N. Bell School Rd. The company held a job fair in downtown Rockford on Aug. 13 and 14 to interview and evaluate applicants.
“Staffing levels are down everywhere,” said Tracy Bradford, executive vice president of administration of Seminole/Hard Rock Support Services. “We’re feeling it in all of our properties, in all of our cafes, in all of our brick and mortar stores we’re feeling the effects of COVID. It’s such a sad day when you see a sign on a restaurant that reads ‘Sorry, we’re closed because we don’t have any employees.’”
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The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Olympic Tavern’s plans to celebrate its 75th anniversary last year at 2327 N. Main St.
While the Olympic has reopened to indoor dining late afternoons and evenings six days a week, the tavern is currently open for lunch on Saturday only.
“My main focus was retaining our staff and making sure that we had people to start up again,” Olympic general manager Zak Rotello said. “I’m very happy to say that I think we have about 95% of the people that we started with before COVID. I am still looking for some more kitchen crew and maybe another bartender or server. But, we’re just keeping things lean and making sure that the people who are here are making money.”
While the staffing shortage continues at her restaurant, Caltagerone is doing her share of the cooking, serving and dishwashing for the time being.
“There have been a lot of obstacles to overcome,” she said. “We do see a light at the end of the tunnel now, but the past year-and-a-half has been extremely challenging.”
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Ken DeCoster:; @DeCosterKen


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