Help still wanted: Why some Racine County restaurants had to shorten hours in recent months | Local News

The Durand Avenue spot — which just won first place in Best of Racine County as best restaurant on the west end — is usually open around lunch time, as many restaurants in the area are. Except, on this particular Wednesday, it was closed.

Two bikers, who were parked outside the restaurant and likely wanted to stop by for lunch, were scrolling on their phones. “They changed their hours,” one told the other. “I saw it on Facebook.”

The temporary change in hours at TinCan started Nov. 9. A sign outside the restaurant read, “Sadly, due to kitchen staffing shortage we are not able to be open for our regular hours & service, sorry for the inconvenience!!” Underneath it is a message urging anyone to apply for the restaurant’s open positions.

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In spring of this year, reporters across southeastern Wisconsin and the nation started diving into the state of the worker shortage as the country slowly opened up after the peak of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

At the time, restaurant owners were cutting their hours, but only by a hair; Simple Cafe in Lake Geneva was taking one day off a week to let staff breathe. Approaching autumn, restaurants are announcing longer closures — sometimes for whole weeks — and even some emergency closures just to manage being short-staffed.

If the question earlier this year was, “Where did all the workers go?” the question now may be: “Is anyone still out there?”

As more businesses reopen their doors and expand operations while the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, “Help Wanted” signs are cropping up like spring dandelions, with many employers saying they are finding it more difficult than ever to find workers.

Closed for a week

Candi Lucksted, owner of TinCan, said she has spent “well over three grand” on advertisements and services to get the word out on the restaurant’s open positions in the last year.

After passing a preliminary phone call or email exchange with a few brief questions, Lucksted said interested candidates wouldn’t show up to in-person interviews. “It wasn’t just on occasion. It was nine times out of 10.”

Candi Lucksted

Candi Lucksted, owner of TinCan Roadhouse, poses in front of the bar on Wednesday, Nov. 10. 

Diana Panuncial

Lucksted realized that she and other small restaurant owners were up against unemployment benefits and rising minimum wages in other industries. She knew those who were receiving heightened unemployment benefits would be getting more money than what she could offer, and larger corporations were also boosting their minimum wages.

As a small business, she can hardly compete.

James Peters

James Peters, a cook at TinCan Roadhouse, chops up vegetables on Wednesday, Nov. 10.

Diana Panuncial

“So we listed specific hours, no experience necessary, we were willing to train, anything to just try and compete with wages,” she said. Still, the restaurant has not found any viable new employees to join the team. Candidates were often asking for higher wages than what she said the restaurant could offer.

The deficit, which is specifically in kitchen help, has forced the restaurant to shave its hours. It was even closed for an entire week while one of its cooks was on vacation. The crew was unable to celebrate its Best Of win. Lucksted said she wasn’t going to force the cook to postpone his vacation, and she wasn’t going to have the restaurant open short one cook.

“Instead of trying to do a terrible job, and frustrate the cooks that we have, and then frustrate the servers, and then disappoint the customers because it was taking too long … we just thought we’d close,” Lucksted said. That week, the staff was able to focus on pre-booked events, but they couldn’t manage those and regular business at the same time.

Working at Mexico Lindo

Lexi Rodriguez, an employee at Mexico Lindo, is also a mom. 

Diana Panuncial

Mexico Lindo in Downtown Racine saw a string of closures in early November due to one of the staff members having an injury, leaving the kitchen short-handed.

Owners Jose and Sendi Contreras said while most of their customers are understanding, some of them have been impatient and even angry when there have been unexpected closures.

Sendi’s message for customers when they’re out dining is “Be patient with all — not just us — but all small businesses. And be kind to the staff because they’re here, you know, and as hard as it is to find employees, they’re actually here.”

Sendi and Jose Contreras

Mexico Lindo co-owners Sendi and Jose Contreras are pictured inside their restaurant at 600 Sixth St. in Downtown Racine on Thursday.

Diana Panuncial

‘Bleeding money’

For a new restaurant like SapSap, 2343 Mead St. — which just opened a few months ago in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic — staffing has been tricky, said Alex Hanesakda, the owner.

Alex Hanesakda

Alex Hanesakda stands on the steps of SapSap’s new location, the former Totero’s restaurant at 2343 Mead St. Though the Laotian barbecue restaurant only opened its brick-and-mortar location this summer, it has been around for a couple of years, developing fans from all over southeast Wisconsin.

Diana Panuncial

“Some days are busy. And some days are really slow. It just goes up and down like that,” he said. “We have a better grasp on it (now). … We’re bleeding money when we’re not busy and overstaffed.” Everything counts as a brand new, small family business, he added.

SapSap — which is open three days a week — is doing its best to still provide living wages to its employees despite only having part-time positions available.

Cooks start anywhere from $15-$17 an hour, which Hanesakda said is on the lower end. “McDonald’s pays that. But they make millions of dollars. We pay that and we make margins. Margins are really low for a restaurant, especially a startup like us.”

Hanesakda said he hopes customers are more understanding of small restaurants, because they Are not large corporations who can afford to pay to ease burdens like staffing and the growing cost of restaurant supplies.

Sometimes, the wait’s a little longer or the food’s a little more expensive than a fast food restaurant at a small business, but “we’re all navigating through COVID and all of that.”

“Restaurants are going through through hell right now,” Hanesakda said, “and they’re just fighting to stay alive.”

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