- September 20, 2021
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How do you operate a restaurant with no help?
Close on Monday.
Shorten the hours of operation.
Simplify the menu.
These are some of the steps that small business owners in Macomb County are taking in order to deal with the ongoing worker shortage.
“Before COVID we were thriving. We had over 50 employees, eleven cooks on the weekend, and a full house every night,” said Jack Erdman, general manager of Roger’s Roost in Sterling Heights. “Now we’re turning business away because we don’t have the people to handle it.”
This past Monday was the first time in the company’s history the doors were closed.
“It’s been hard to plan around the uncertain times that we live in,” said the restaurant manager, who is not unlike many others doing what they can to adapt to the ever-changing conditions surrounding the pandemic.
Last week patrons of Mike’s on the Water in St. Clair Shores watched a moving video posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page announcing that they will be closing for the season. The industry’s lack of staff and help was cited as the reason they can no longer open their doors.
“I’m very saddened by this announcement,” said the restaurant’s owner, who promised his customers the establishment would be back next spring, bigger, better and stronger than ever.
Statewide, hiring and retaining workers along with increasing product costs are the biggest challenges small business owners are dealing with right now as state-mandated pandemic restrictions have come and gone. It’s now being left up to individual business owners to decide how to best navigate this pandemic for themselves, their employees, and their customers.
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, employment is increasing across all Michigan industries, but still below pre-pandemic levels. As of July 2021, statewide employment totaled 4,487,565 while the labor force totaled 4,715,003. Both numbers are down from 2019 around 5.4% and 4.8% respectively.
The state’s labor force participation rate, which is the percentage of Michigan’s population that is employed or actively seeking work was 59% in July, down from 62% in July 2019. The issue remains not the number of jobs available but the number of people who left the workforce and the slow trickle of those returning to it.
In July, 397,700 American workers quit their jobs, the highest of any month since at least December 2000, according to the BLS. The number of hires made totaled 666,700 nationwide.
In Macomb County, between January and March, the county’s total employment increased from 306,000 to 309,700. While this shows a 1.8% increase it is still down from the 334,100 total for March 2019.
Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, believes that it’s important for businesses to prioritize and balance staffing levels and hours to ensure they can continue to provide a high-level of service when they are open.
In restaurants, one way to do that is by roping off sections.
This can be disappointing for patrons who see openings in a restaurant only to learn the establishment has actually reached its capacity for service. But whether its the reality of the pandemic or because they’ve been told the situation, customers have shown a great deal of patience in light of the situation.
“There’s only so much you can ask of the workers. Tensions are higher and customer service is more challenging than it has been in the past,” Calley said. “There’s an apprehension to trying to stretch your staff too thin, even if they are willing, in order to make sure the businesses are not creating an environment where there is a big incentive to go find something easier to do.”
It’s not just restaurants having trouble staffing a full work day.
Many industries are in need of help — from grocery stores and manufacturing plants to retail shops and produce farmers.
“We’ve seen quite a few business closings and the ones that are still open are all struggling with the workforce shortage,” said Kelley Lovati, chief executive officer for the Macomb County Chamber of Commerce.
In some cases owners that used to run their business are now working in the business, she added.
Such was the case for Jill Leger and Carrie Weinreich.
Before the pandemic the sisters and co-owners of Willy and Babbish Boutique in New Baltimore had four employees helping with operations at the store.
Now it’s just them.
However, in their case it’s not a lack of applicants but a lack of financial resources that has left them operating the business on their own.
“COVID shutdowns and restrictions were very damaging for every small business owner, I know,” said Weinreich. “Our sales suffered over a 30% decrease from April 2020 through March 2021. The continuous restaurant shutdowns hurt our business the most. As a retailer in a small walkable town, we depend on cross-traffic from other local businesses, especially the restaurants.”
In order to fill positions many companies are offering signing bonuses or wages slightly higher than similar jobs.
“That price point creates competition,” said Vicky Rowinski, director of Macomb County Planning and Economic Development, which has been supporting small business owners through grants and business initiatives like the Shop Local Macomb Christmas in July contest.
From July 16 through July 25, MCPED received nearly 300 submissions after asking the community to shop or dine locally and submit a photo of their experience for a chance to win prizes.
Each business associated with the 10 winners chosen also received a $1,000 grant including Leger and Weinreich, who used the money to invest in email marketing automation.
The sisters also received about $9,000 in other grants provided by the county’s CARES Act dollars.
“Our independently owned and operated retailers and restaurants need us to shop, dine and promote their businesses,” Rowinski said. “So, even though our contest is over, we hope that Macomb County residents and visitors will continue to shop local.”
Rowinski said they are planning another shop local initiative for November. The county’s website also features a career opportunities page where workers can apply for multiple positions with the same application and import their resume from LinkedIn.
The Macomb Chamber of Commerce is also planning to host a job fair and its members are advocating legislators to help small businesses get through the challenging times they are facing.
“We’ve seen 40 businesses close (between February 2020 and August 2021) and have another 36 (small businesses) that have changed their membership status based on COVID,” Lovati said. “I would say that’s significant.”
One of the reasons Willy and Babbish has survived the COVID storm is because its owners adapted to the climate.
When the pandemic created conditions and restrictions that deterred people from shopping in person, Leger and Weinreich put their energy and dollars into advertising strategies that attracted online sales.
When it became impossible to find inventory to purchase for resale because of the halt in the supply chain they changed their business model, so they were no longer dependent on merchandise made in China.
Now their boutique only sells eco-friendly and fair trade products – many of which have an interesting story about how they came to be – and products made in the USA.
“I think our customers are, loving it,” Weinreich said.
Among the small businesses that were touted as a model for how to reopen during COVID-19 is Rosalina Altadonna’s Salon Treuvis Studio Suites and Medical Spa (formerly Treuvis Eyes Nails Body) salon in Clinton Township, which has actually reopened twice.
The first time was supposed to be in July of 2020.
After establishing an association for salons – which had no industry representation during COVID – and spending a small fortune updating her facility so her staff of professional cosmetologists could provide their services without jeopardizing the safety of themselves or their clients, Treuvis was ready to reopen.
Only 75% of her staff were not ready for work.
“They just never showed up,” Altadonna said. “That was really devastating because all of our regular clients had called for appointments.”
Some of her staff had children at home and no one to watch them at a time when schools were still engaged in virtual learning, which created problems for many workers.
Others chose to stay on unemployment and work from home on their own.
“I understand why they did it but it put me in a bad position,” she said. “We had to cancel 300 appointments.”
Altadonna managed a reopening but after losing another employee realized that her industry was changing and that she could either adapt or go under.
That’s when she and her husband decided to reinvent Treuvis, by converting her entire space, totaling 4,000 square feet, into private salon suites.
“It was like starting from scratch all over again,” Altadonna said, while giving her guest a tour of the building that now resembles an upscale beauty mall.
Each of the luxury suites have a fireplace or cozy leather chairs where customers can sip on an espresso or latte while waiting for a nail technician or hair stylist, whose success depends solely on what they do with their space.
“It was heartbreaking tearing the salon apart but what we have accomplished and where we are today? I think it’s the best decision we ever made,” said Altadonna, whose triumphs over the adversities caused by the pandemic and success as a small business owner earned her a nomination in the Macomb Business Awards’ Hidden Gem category.
“It’s been really amazing to see these women grow and flourish,” said Altadonna, who is now sharing her business model with other salons trying to navigate the ever-changing COVID climate.