The George on the Riverwalk, a restaurant at 128 S. Water St. in downtown Wilmington, has announced a temporary closure because of a staffing shortage.
Like many area restaurants, The George has struggled over the past several months to maintain normal business hours with a skeleton crew.
While front-of-house staffing has not been quite as much of an issue as back-of-house, managers say they have nowhere near the number of staff they would normally have during the high season.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said bar manager Jessica Lis. “Usually come May we have a huge stack of applications and this year, nothing. I just can’t even believe it.”
The restaurant reopened at 50% capacity in May, and vice president Cathy Whatley said the kitchen has been operating with three managers and one other staff member – that’s four people working double shifts to cover what normally would be the work of two six-person teams.
Because the kitchen is so severely understaffed, the dining room has been operating at roughly 60% capacity, and normal business hours have been cut from 50 per week to just 22. Despite these drastic cutbacks, the kitchen is still pumping out 250 meals each lunch service and about 175 dinners.
In addition to the ordering and prep work, the challenge for the back of the house is simply putting out that many dishes each service without driving up wait times. The challenge for the front of the house is providing a seamless dining experience despite the overwhelming burden placed upon the kitchen.
“Diners are not supposed to know the stress of what goes on behind the scenes,” said Kerra Gore, front-of-house manager and event coordinator. “But in this kind of situation, we have no choice but to be transparent.”
When diners ask why there are open tables that cannot be used, front-of-house staff must explain that in order to not overwhelm the kitchen, they can only seat so many guests at a time. If they were to fill every seat, the wait for food would have every customer in an uproar and send the kitchen into a certain downward spiral.
Operating at 50 to 60% capacity has become necessary to maintain the quality of the food and integrity of service.
“We may not be able to seat as many people as we would like to, but they will have a better experience overall,” said assistant kitchen manager Aaron Rinere.
Rinere explained that by seating only a portion of the dining area, people get their food in a reasonable amount of time and the table can turn over to another guest. It also prevents chaos in the kitchen and allows the front of the house to be more attentive to guests.
In addition to cutting back on service hours and capacity, menus have been streamlined to help the kitchen run more efficiently and offset rising food costs. But the restaurant can only absorb so much of those increased costs before having to pass them on to the customer or substitute them for another product.
Many of the recent cost increases are widely attributed to low supply on account of fewer workers to process and distribute everything from meats and seafood to silverware and glass bottles for liquor.
Kitchen manager James Williams believes expanded unemployment benefits have had a severe impact on kitchen staffing and the food industry as a whole. Not only are kitchens short-staffed but food processing plants and distributors are as well, causing shortages and increased prices up and down the line.
Whatley said as an independent restaurant that’s not operating at full capacity, offering increased wages and hiring bonuses is not an option for recruiting new employees. She’s holding out hope that when expanded unemployment benefits end in September, there will be an influx of applications and qualified restaurant personnel will once again return to the workforce.
She said she is also hopeful that as students return to area colleges, they will be seeking part-time work.
Officials said The George is fortunate that several key management staff members have been with the restaurant for several years. Since the start of the pandemic, they have worked together to adapt to the ever-changing landscape they’ve been facing for nearly 18 months.
“This isn’t about the restaurant’s income; it’s about taking care of the people we have and making sure they’re mentally and physically OK,” said Gore. “It’s another adaptation to the big picture.”
Whatley plans for the restaurant to reopen Sept 2, but it all depends on staffing. She will hold two days of open house hiring during the last week of August with a strong focus on building up the kitchen staff. Kitchen managers will utilize off days to train the new staff and bring them up to speed.
“I want to dispel the rumor that we’ve closed for good,” Whatley said. “We want to reopen as soon as possible and the majority of the front-of-house staff have indicated that they plan to return, so as soon we can get some more kitchen staff up to speed, we will reopen.”
As a whole, Whatley’s staff is very positive about the future and she said she's grateful for their ongoing support and determination to see things through. Their sense of comradery extends beyond their tight-knit crew to the entire restaurant community.
“We have done everything we can to continue to adapt and to support one another,” Gore said. “We know everyone else is in the same boat, not only here in Wilmington but everywhere."
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