Chris Steele said the restaurant he and his wife, Rosemary, have owned for years in Gulf Shores, DeSoto’s Seafood Kitchen, had its best summer ever at the cash register.
It was also the toughest he can remember trying to find and maintain enough employees to keep up with the record crowds.
“This summer was as rough as any I remember in that regard,” Steele said. “We are tired and need a break. And I’m still trying to hire people. It’s August and I’m usually having to let people go, and I’m still trying to hire people.”
“Help wanted” signs are all over the resort cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, and in nearby Foley as well. Tacky Jacks’ CFO Ken Kichler has seen the signs along Orange Beach’s Canal Road and experiencing the same thing at his restaurants.
“I saw Brick & Spoon’s sign today and it said ‘now hiring all positions,’” Kichler said. “We’re in the same boat.”
Even as business takes its usual, early August dip when school starts back, businesses are still shorthanded.
“This week we did 40 percent less than we did the week before,” Kichler said. “But I went back and looked at the same two weeks last year and the same thing happened.”
Tacky Jacks’ Vice President of Operations David Evans says the three island locations also did a record-breaking business for the summer despite the constant struggles finding enough help to get the tourists fed.
“We had a record-setting season,” Evans said. “It’s been an incredible year over year and our Gulf Shores store is working on 20 quarters of growth in a row. All three stores are up pretty much for the last five years.”
Evans says employment struggles were amplified this year compared to past seasons, but it is a problem resort areas will always face.
“Not enough worker bees and there’s not a lot that brings them here 12 months out of the year,” he said. “And it’s expensive for them to come live here for six months and then have to find something else to do. Seasonality is just a very difficult situation to manage.”
Scott Keel said in the two years or so since he and partner Susan Ellis opened Bleus Burger in Pelican Plaza in Gulf Shores, labor has been their biggest problem.
“In short, it’s without doubt the biggest challenge we’ve faced since opening,” Keel said. “Finding good, talented people to join your team and keeping them there almost seems like a pipe dream. I feel like it’s been a nonstop hiring process.”
The behind-the-scenes work of running the business sometimes gets pushed to the background as cooking food and serving customers while short-staffed takes priority.
“Finding time to do all the day-to-day administrative tasks is nearly impossible,” Keel said. “We’ve got so many great ideas to continue to push Bleus Burger to the top, but we can’t seem to get to any of it these days.”
On a recent busy day, Keel stepped out of the kitchen wearing an apron to greet a vendor. He had to cut the visit short and get back to the grill.
“I personally have spent anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week working on the line,” Keel said. “Susan has done the same if not more. It’s been a huge strain on both of us and the business as a whole.”
Sapping the labor pool further is the nationwide debate over illegal immigration shrinking another workforce option.
“You have to be so careful with contract labor,” Evans said. “Are they illegal, do they have green cards and all that kind of stuff. It’s put a real pinch on everyone, not just the restaurant business or the condominium business and the beach business. It’s from here all the way to Bay Minette.
“The immigration rhetoric is not just hurting here, it’s hurting everywhere that’s seasonal, it’s hurting the agricultural harvesting. It’s a fact, it’s just the way it is.”
The booming economy of South Baldwin County, where houses and condos continue to spring from the ground in the beach communities, plus Foley’s business expansions, have taken a toll on the labor pool, too.
“It only gets worse because Foley continues to grow its retail business, which pulls from the beach,” Evans said. “The boom, so to speak, hurts in so many ways because there’s just not enough people to fill all the many positions that are available.”
Expanding the tourist season is also taking a toll, Evans said.
“It used to be Memorial Day to Labor Day,” Evans said. “But now it starts at spring break and goes to the end of October. One thing that is hurting the employment situation, too, is you have so many people that leave and go back to school and other stuff when the season ends.”
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