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Short on labor, are foodservice operators being forced to cut hours?

As if foodservice directors didn’t have enough to worry about, they’ll soon have another reason for pause as they contemplate the advantages enjoyed by their commercial competition. With the supply of labor at a historic low, restaurants can temper the pain by shaving time off their hours of operation. But the remedy just won’t work for noncommercial facilities, as pros from that realm attested during a spot check for FoodService Director by its research sister, Technomic.

“We are a school system, so we cannot shorten our hours,” said Micheline Piekarski of the Oak Park and River Forest High School District in the western suburbs of Chicago. With the needs of students trumping labor considerations, the most the district can do is shut down a line if not enough bodies are mustered for a shift, she explained.

The same reality was cited by other noncommercial members of Technomic’s Operator Community Panel, a standing group the researcher periodically canvasses for a snapshot of what’s happening in the business.

Representatives from virtually every noncommercial segment responded the same way to Technomic’s query about cutting hours: Dining options have to remain open to serve the targeted population, even if there aren’t enough employees available to fulfill that mission in the usual way.

Adapt the menu

Respondents more often cited other techniques for easing the imbalance between labor supply and demand. Caffe Macs, an employee cafeteria on Apple’s corporate campus in Cupertino, Calif., has adjusted its menus to require less manpower. Pasta stations, for instance, might feature lasagna rather than handmade ravioli, saving work on the prep side.

Others noted they’re asking customers to pitch in. FHN (Family Health Network) Memorial Hospital in Freeport, Ill., an Aramark-run facility, replaced nighttime cafeteria service with a self-checkout operation for staff.

A number of respondents professed to having a deploy-where-needed mindset, shifting employees from station to station or facility to facility to nudge customer traffic and the availability of staffers closer into sync.

“Our staff is very good at filling in when there are open spots,” said Jamie Frantz, from the McLean County Nursing Home in Normal, Ill.

It’s not as if those moves completely allay the problem, a number of respondents agreed. “We haven’t shortened our hours yet, but service is slower due to staff shortages,” said Wayne Doney, director and general manager of dining services at Luther Manor in Milwaukee, a Sodexo-managed operation.

“We are forced to meet unrealistic labor numbers and it really shows in terms of service and menu advances,” said Candece Stewart from the University of Mississippi.

Even then, she said, the school has stations that “we do have to shut down during peak semester periods due to labor constraints.”

Keep an eye on commercial

Street-side restaurants included in the survey for purposes of comparison weren’t hampered by the requirement to serve a captive population first and make money second.  But ones that reported cutting their hours said they were demoralized by resorting to that dire step. “Sadly, I have been forced to close one day a week due to lack of workers,” said Mark Lawrence, proprietor of the Polar Cave Ice Cream Parlour in Mashpee, Mass. “No choice—I have to give the other employees at least one day off.”

The alternatives are just as grim, indicated the commercial operators. A Melting Pot restaurant in Whippany, N.J., refuses to trim its business day, but fielding a less-than-complete staff has still taken a toll on revenues.

Still, at least one respondent wished the option was available to him as a way of easing his labor plight. “Must be nice,” said Jim Burns of Jose O’Shea’s in Lakewood, Colo.

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

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