Restaurants getting creative to survive as worker shortage continues over pandemic

ATLANTA — A worker shortage is impacting the service industry more than any other industry.

According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurants across the United States are down about 1 million workers compared to before the pandemic.

Channel 2′s Jorge Estevez spent a day working as a server at Haven in Brookhaven to get perspective on the need for employees and what can be done to help businesses return to normal.

He worked alongside Molly Maull, who has 16 years in the service industry.

“Once you start in this business it’s a love-hate relationship. There’s no in-between,” Maull said.

Estevez started his day waiting on a table of four women. They were reuniting for the first time since the pandemic hit in 2020. Kitty Roberts flew into town for the reunion.

“I get to have lunch with my girlfriends, and I get to experience more and make more memories with my family,” Roberts said.

Maull said she works to make customers feel at home -- a relationship Haven owner Michel Arnette also worked to foster during the pandemic.

Like many restaurants at that time, Haven took to-go orders, had curbside pickup, and arranged valet drivers to do deliveries, which is something Arnette often did himself.

“I was all masked up and saying hey it’s me,” Arnette said.

Arnette told Channel 2 Action News even with those efforts, he lost $1.7 million in nine weeks and had to lay off 140 employees.

Arnette said his employees came back, but not every restaurant group was that lucky.

According to the National Restaurant Association, 40% of operators say they are not open to full capacity mostly due to staffing shortages.

In Georgia, the industry is short about 90,000 employees.

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Arnette said he believes the service industry has a chance to get staffing back on track.

“Better wages, watching third shifts (employees) work per week, benefits and the biggest thing of all is you aid and nurture and take care of every one of them,” Arnette said.

Raymone Williams, who owns Tastee Spook in Dunwoody, found another way to relieve overworked staff: robots.

Williams opened her Caribbean restaurant 12 years ago. Like everyone else, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.

Williams said she moved her operation from a location inside the Perimeter Mall to a stand-alone operation as Georgia allowed owners to reopen.

“We saw the demand that customers wanted to interact somewhat and that’s how the robot came into play,” Williams said.

The robot named “Millie” greets customers with a digital menu, water, napkins and silverware.

Customers put their order into a touch screen, then when the food is ready, employees place the plates onto the robot’s shelves and send it to the table.

Employees do check in with tables to make sure they have what they need and create that human connection.

Williams said her staff love the help.

“It’s a partner to everyone,” Williams said. “They can get to know the customers. They can build a rapport with our guests.”

Williams told Channel 2 Action News that she hasn’t cut staff since bringing the robot server on board.

In fact, she encouraged anyone who may be searching for a job to apply.

Karen Bremer with the Georgia Restaurant Association said Williams is not alone.

Bremer said about 3,800 restaurants in Georgia shut down during the pandemic are still closed.

“We have many restaurateurs that are working with school systems that have culinary programs, hospitality programs. We also have pending legislation in Washington, D.C. to create a new category of visas for restaurant workers,” Bremer said.

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