Doc’s Seafood Shack and Oyster Bar in Orange Beach sees a lot of repeat business. General Manager Cindy Conrad thinks she knows why.
“People love coming here because they see the same people over and over and over,” Conrad said. “They come in and ask ‘where’s Sandy, where’s Donnie, where’s Susan? Where’s all the day girls? Where’s your daughter?’ They’re just off today, they’ll be back. They haven’t gone anywhere.”
In 30 years of working at restaurants on the coast, Conrad is one of the reasons many staffers have stayed with Doc’s so many years. And, while there are some success stories of restaurants being able to keep steady staff in the seasonal tourist industry — the five Cosmo’s family restaurants, Doc’s, Big Fish, Anchor Bar, to name a few — it’s far from the norm in the beach economy.
Inevitably, “WE’RE HIRING” signs are up year-round in many of the restaurants, stores and vacation rental companies. As spring is breaking and the new season begins in earnest, finding good, consistent help is a struggle.
At Doc’s, it’s a skill Conrad has honed over the years. It’s not uncommon for the person waiting on you at the iconic restaurant to have worked there five, 10, 15 years, and many more than 20 years.
“I think it’s because we are a family here,” she says. “We take such good care of our people and we care about them as a person. And what their troubles are outside of their jobs, and we work with the troubles that they have. It’s like their home.”
WORKING FOR TIPS
Adjusting to working in a tourist economy provides a steep learning curve, one that threw Lacie Smith for a loop.
“I moved down here six years ago and the first summer I think I made about $8,000 to $9,000,” said Smith, a server and bartender at Cactus Cantina on Canal Road in Orange Beach. “I remember I blew it all.”
Being young, living at the beach and suddenly flush with cash, Smith took in all the fun living at the coast had to offer.
“I was like ‘I just turned 21, I live at the beach,’” Smith said. “All my friends were super jealous because I lived and worked at the beach and I had so much fun every weekend. You could see it on my Facebook. I was living the life.”
But she learned quickly that when the crowds went away and the temperature cooled off, so did her tips.
“Winter hit and I was like ‘Mom, I have no money,’” Smith said. “I remember scrounging up change in my car to see how much change I had to get a McDouble so I could eat. It was rough that first winter. I was like, ‘I’m never doing that again.’”
It got worse before it got better.
“I had a car repoed because I couldn’t pay the note,” she said. “I moved back with my mom for a while in Spanish Fort.”
But those hard-learned lessons stuck and as Smith earned more shifts she socked away more and more of her tips instead of hitting the party scene regularly.
“Now, I work probably five, six days a week — and that’s through the winter,” she said. “I’m not taking any days off until I get where I want to be. Now I’m paying all my bills and being an adult.”
Her love for the area has grown and she hopes to make it a permanent home after 2019’s busy season.
“I love it here and I can’t see myself living anywhere else now,” Smith said. “At the end of this year, I’m buying a house. I have my credit up and everything and I’m just waiting to have a little nest egg.”
IT’S THE ECONOMY
Dr. Keivan Deravi of Auburn University-Montgomery is an economist who has done several studies on coastal Alabama, including the impact of the Hangout Music Festival and seasonal employment. Workforce woes, he says, will always present a challenge for business owners in the tourist-driven region.
“The beach economy is seasonal, so the economy is going to have a hard time trying to get the resources as far as manpower to run the operation,” Deravi said. “What happens, as you know, when the season starts with Memorial Day and pretty much ends Labor Day. You cannot build a labor force simply by going with the seasonal factors.”
By the time you get the workers on board and working like you want them to, the end of that season is already looming, Deravi says.
“You’re in competition with Destin, you’re in competition with other with Florida coasts. It’s always a challenge to bring in your labor force, train them to be able to serve the customers and get it done,” he said.
One way to hire and keep good help is to expand the season beyond the barriers of the traditional summer with spring and fall events. There are at least two art festivals in the spring, a Zydeco festival and the Hangout Festival has added a week to the traditional season with its May musical blowout.
“Hangout has been extremely successful,” Deravi said. “I noticed that in April a lot of condos and high rises are hiring people fast and earlier. But even Hangout is experiencing some struggles from the infrastructure. Besides that, we don’t have the roads to satisfy the traffic at the highest level. We don’t have the infrastructure.”
Fall sees the wildly popular National Shrimp Festival in October and the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission bolstering the calendar with youth baseball and softball all the way up to the NCAA Women’s Sand Volleyball National Championship.
Deravi, however, remains skeptical the traditional season can be expanded.
“It’s not going to work,” Deravi said. “You cannot build the entire labor force and you cannot build the infrastructure for the peak time. You basically, for lack of a better word, have to improvise. That’s a challenge that’s always going to be there. Because a permanent base cannot justify the number of labor force during peak so you’re always going to have that. You cannot provide all year round with the labor force.”
But there’s evidence to the contrary. Donnie Watkins has been at Doc’s Seafood Shack for more than 20 years as a server and bartender and says the last few years have been a blur.
“There’s really no off-season anymore,” Watkins said. “Last year our November was even better than our September. We spend more nights packed out and on a wait after the peak season than ever before.”
Herb Malone has been the President and CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism for more than 25 years. He agrees with Deravi’s assessment of the summer.
“Peak season is summer — always has been and always will be — but we are gaining each year in shoulder season visitation,” Malone said. “We are proud of the progress made building our shoulder seasons. By increasing revenue during the spring, fall and winter, local businesses are able to keep more employees on staff year-round.”
Tourism numbers back up Malone’s assessment of the shoulder season. Lodging taxes in September, October and November were $87 million, up 13 percent over 2017. Winter collections for December of 2018 and January and February of 2019 were $43 million, 12 percent over 2017-18 numbers.
In the spring, lodging taxes have increased an average of 13 percent during the past seven years and summer lodging revenues have averaged 10 percent growth annually during the same seven years.
In the fall of 2018, the coastal area hosted 43 sporting events, which resulted in more than 22,000 room nights, a 26 percent increase over 2017. A total of 86 meetings in the fall of 2018 resulted in more than 18,000 room nights, or an 8 percent increase.
CHANGING THE CULTURE
While the expansion of the season through sports events, meetings and festivals helps businesses retain employees longer, it also exposes the shortage of quality help across all tourist businesses.
Brian Harsany has lived the tourist economy since the 1990s. He and wife Jodi own five successful restaurants in Orange Beach with Cosmo’s, Cobalt, GTs By the Bay, Luna’s Eat and Drink and BuzzCatz Coffee & Sweets. Cultivating good help has been a staple for his businesses and a skill he and Jodi and staff continue to perfect.
“The labor market has always been bad down here and has gotten worse and worse as time has gone on,” Harsany said. “One, through a shrinking labor force down here and then, two, so many new businesses. So, it’s vitally important to hire and retain employees because you also save money not having to retrain.”
And it starts, he says, when the doors open for the first time.
“Our goal has always been when we open something and hire a staff in and build the core of solid employees as big as possible and as fast as possible through offering such benefits as insurance, a great work environment,” Harsany said.
His company even offers 401(k) benefits with a match to employees who are there after a year.
“We try to do little perks here and there so it’s fun for them and fun for us,” Harsany said. “And if it is fun then it means great customer service.”
Harsany said it’s about creating the same culture from upper management to the hostess greeting guests at the door. If all the employees are culturally connected and striving toward the same end, they’ll be happy and more productive. It’s also an approach friends Leck and Jana Lilayuva use across the street from Harsany’s Cosmo’s at Big Fish.
“It’s getting everybody to know what the culture is and it’s the same culture no matter what level you’re on,” Harsany said. “If you do that, then everybody’s going for the same goal instead of three separate goals. When Leck says culture and I say culture it is very important that everybody knows.”
With everybody on the same page and striving toward the same end, Harsany says it makes for happier employees because they know what their job is when they clock in.
“You create a great work environment by creating a lot of structure where an employee knows what’s expected of them,” Harsany said. “Again, it’s a comfort thing. If I go to anybody and they know what the goal is, then we’re comfortable because everybody knows what it is. We’re not in the dark about ‘what’s our objective?’”
For the Lilayuvas at Big Fish, their culture is family and treating employees like family has helped with longevity there as well.
“I think the most important thing about Big Fish in our customers’ eyes, they tell us on a daily basis ‘every time I come here I feel like I’m at home because y’all are like family,’” Leck Lilayuva said. “That’s what we wanted when we very first opened. That’s what we’re still trying to instill in our staff. Treat ‘em like they’re family. That’s the number one goal. Everyone’s family.”
Jackie Cole has been a daytime server and night-time food runner at Big Fish for about five years. When she suffered a catastrophic foot injury in 2017, she was unable to work for a year. She was welcomed back as soon as she was able to work again.
Back at Doc’s Seafood Shack, Conrad says a restaurant’s management style is also a part of the culture and will help you retain employees for long periods.
“I tell every manager that I hire and that I train that firing somebody is the easiest thing you can do,” Conrad said. “Anybody can fire somebody. But getting them to turn around and work for you, that’s managing.”
When it works, a level of respect is also gained, Conrad said, leading to even stronger bonds.
Local chambers of commerce and tourist business leaders are actively seeking new recruits for the hospitality industry by attending and hosting seminars. President Michelle Hodges of Meyer Realty and Vacation Rentals and others in the industry have a busy March planned for recruiting interns.
“We will join with other business leaders as part of the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce’s Business Driven Talent Development and Recruitment team for a visit to Michigan State University,” Hodges said. “We will address students who are eager to learn about the hospitality industry and seeking internships to build their experience, and encourage them to consider interning on the Gulf Coast.”
Hodges says Meyer has a history of working with in-state schools as well including career fairs at Troy University, the University of South Alabama, Auburn University and the University of Alabama.
“College interns have been a vital part of our seasonal workforce year after year, and we enjoy sharing our hospitality experience with them as they learn how to deliver exceptional service to vacationing families,” she said. “In fact, our internship program has been so successful that many of our college interns have converted to full-time members of our team.”
Another effort by the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce is reaching out to high school students through the South Baldwin Chamber Gateway Initiative and a new Youth Apprenticeship (YA) program slated to start in April. The goal of the program is to train and recruit local talent to work in the hospitality industry.
“We are always looking for bright, young talented people and this youth apprenticeship program will truly provide opportunities for kids in the community to advance their careers and allow us to be a part of their growth,” Shaul Zislin of the Hangout Hospitality group said.
It is a paid apprenticeship and students will be mentored by local hospitality professionals during their training.
“Our local businesses have joined forces to develop talent locally and invest in our community,” Hodges said. “Strong and stable careers in the industry contribute to strong and stable communities. This is why our strategic partnership with local schools is so important.”
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