By MICHELLE MONROE
GRAND ISLE – Island businesses have enjoyed a busy summer, often exceeding the business they did in 2019. Unfortunately, staffing has not kept up.
When college and high school students returned to school this month, Wally’s Place closed for 10 days. It will reopen on Thursday with hours reduced from seven days per week to Thursday to Sunday.
The reduced hours are needed “to alleviate the stress on myself and the few employees I do have,” said owner Matt Bartle.
While he typically loses summer help when college resumes, in the past he’s had a core group of year-round employees. “This year something shifted and those people were not there,” Bartle said.
Bartle said there is a perception that restaurant work is low paid and workers are not well-treated, but he is currently paying close to $15 per hour. “I’ve always been a proponent of raising the minimum wage, but you can’t do it all at once,” he said.
Although 10,000 Vermonters are poised to lose unemployment benefits within the next week, Bartle said he was not sure it would make a difference. “There’s all sorts of new online jobs,” he said, offering the ability to work from home.
Before limiting his hours to four days per week, Bartle closed Wally’s Place on Tuesdays in August. Prior to the pandemic, the restaurant only closed three days out of the year.
Bartle has reached out to former employees, with some agreeing to return, at least for a few hours per week. Family have also helped, with his wife working on the weekends, even though it meant hiring someone to watch their children.
Shore Acres, too, has closed its restaurant one day per week. Initially, the closure was because of staffing shortages in the kitchen, said manager Jason Hanny. Once he had staff to reopen he decided to stay closed on Wednesday to give the staff a rest.
The restaurant has been booked solid every night. “Every single night for us is a Saturday night,” Hanny said, which takes a toll on staff.
Guests at the inn have understood the closure and staff have directed them to other area restaurants on Wednesdays, according to Hanny.
To get and keep staff, Hanny is willing to be flexible about hours. “We pay a very handsome wage,” he said.
Hanny also draws a hard line on the treatment of staff. When a longtime customer threw a bread basket at an assistant general manager because the customer was angry about the length of the wait for food, Hanny banned the customer. “I will never allow anybody to mistreat the staff,” he said.
Shore Acres best recruitment tool has been current staff, Hanny said. In recognition of that, every staff person who refers someone who is then hired receives $100.
Next year, Shore Acres will open a tiki bar, Bravo Zulu. A pop-up version was planned for this summer, but staffing kept it from happening.
“The number one thing that keeps me awake at night is staffing,” Hanny said.
With the opening of Bravo Zulu, Shore Acres will go from employing approximately 60 people to 100. Finding those additional people is his biggest concern, according to Hanny.
Seb’s Snack Bar and Viva Marketplace haven’t had to close, but finding staff has been a struggle, according to owner Heidi Tappan. “We’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of high school and college age kids help us out,” she said. But with school starting, those staff are departing or working fewer hours.
Hiring is “very difficult,” she said. “Nobody’s responding to any ads at all.”
“We had never advertised before,” Tappan said. In addition to advertising, she’s been asking friends and family to refer potential staff. They’ve also become staff themselves. “Friends and family are here working,” she said.
Tappan is willing to accommodate a variety of schedules “even if you only have five hours one day a week.”
Tappan is hiring for bakers, retail and snack bar staff. “Come and join the fun,” she said. “It really is fun.”
She suggested people could think of working in local businesses as a form of community service. “It helps the whole community. Otherwise, the community is pretty shutdown,” Tappan said.
The need is especially great in the spring and summer, when high school and college students are still in school, according to Tappan.
Like many other businesses on the Islands, Tappan had a busy summer. “I’ve had a great season, and I think other people have as well.”
She wants those customers to have a great experience, but staffing has made that a challenge. “People have to understand we’re understaffed,” Tappan said.
Snow Farm Winery, too, is struggling with staffing, just as the grapes are reaching the harvesting stage.
“We’re really struggling,” said Julie Lane, co-owner of Snow Farm. On some days, they’ve had no help.
“We’re just doing the best we can,” she said. “We’re in the same boat everybody is in.”
In addition to staff in the tasting room, the winery needs people to pick grapes for the next six to eight weeks. “We’re starting earlier this year because of the hot, humid summer,” Lane said.
During harvesting, the grapes are cut from the vines in bunches with scissors. “Anyone can pick grapes,” Lane said.
Some retirees come and pick grapes. In the past, people have earned money for special purchases, according to Lane.
“Come on in and get some extra dollars for Christmas,” she said.