Anna Maria Oyster Bar President and Owner John Horne received quite an unusual phone call five minutes after a recent appearance on Your World with Neil Cavuto on Fox News.
During the Cavuto interview, Horne lamented the help wanted crisis currently engulfing his company, with four locations in Manatee County. Horne, 60, estimates he’s down some 90 employees. To compound the crisis even further, competitors recently poached away a pair of managers.
But this phone call was an unexpected pick-me-up. The woman calling Horne identified herself as retired from the restaurant industry, from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She had just seen the Fox segment and offered to help. So much so she committed to moving to Bradenton with her husband if Horne would hire them. “She said ‘I just love small businesses in America,’” recalls Horne, “and I’ll mop floors, do whatever until you all get this figured out.’”
The couple start working for Anna Maria Oyster Bar in June.
If only the rest of the help wanted crisis could be solved so easily. Horne’s friend and restaurant industry competitor, Mike Quillen, co-owner of Gecko’s Hospitality Group, with 10 locations under four brands in the Sarasota-Manatee region, faces the same predicament. Quillen says on a recent Saturday night, one Gecko’s Grill & Pub location couldn’t open one half of the bar, having no people to staff it. Tripletail Seafood & Spirits, which opened recently in the Landings in Sarasota, has cut back to only dinner, not lunch for the time being, for similar staff shortages.
Overall, Geckos Hospitality Group has 537 employees right now — below the 675 to 700 it needs to be fully staffed, says Quillen. Anna Maria Oyster Bar fully staffed would be at about 400 employees for all the locations — it had 297 people on the most recent payroll. “It’s insanity right now,” Horne says, adding the shortage doesn’t only impact what the restaurants can — or can’t — provide for customers.
It’s also impacting current employees, who are stockpiling overtime and working to exhaustion. “Our employees work their tails off for us,” says Horne, “and we can get them a break.”
Each company is going the traditional route, for the most part, to find more people: online adds and offering referral bonuses to current employees. On the latter, Horne recently raised the referral bounty at AMOB from $250 to $500. He’s also offering sign-on bonuses.
Both Quillen and Horne take great pride in having built hospitality companies known in the region over decades for certain consistent characteristics: good service and reasonable prices for customers and being an employer of choice in the high-turnover restaurant world. Gecko’s offers a 401(k) and paid time off. Horne, meanwhile, has taken staff with the company for at least threes years on trips, from a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game with a steak and lobster tailgate tent to an overnight jaunt to Biloxi, Mississippi. “John and I are good employers,” says Quillen. “We’ve been doing this a hell of a long time.”
Their biggest worry? How long will this crisis go on — and the long-term implications for their brands. “Our reputation as providing good service, value for the dollar,” asks Horne, “will we be able to keep up that up?”
Read more about how the service industry is struggling to find workers: