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How eastern Idaho’s restaurant industry is coping with massive labor shortages

Business & Money

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IDAHO FALLS – Customers attempting to dine at Chili’s Bar & Grill in Idaho Falls recently were surprised to learn the restaurant was closed.

A sign posted on the door last week said the eatery was “closed temporarily due to short staffing.” A new sign Tuesday morning indicated the restaurant was back open with temporarily modified hours. For now, it’s open 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with an 11 p.m. closing time Friday and Saturday.

“We wish to provide our best service possible to each of you and to do so it is necessary to provide the time to fully staff our restaurant and allow staff we do have with time to rest and reset. Thank you for your patronage and your patience as we work on getting back to normal hours of operations as soon as possible,” the sign says.

The restaurant manager and corporate spokesman declined to offer any further comment.

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A sign taped to the door of Chili’s in Idaho Falls explains the restaurant is operating with limited hours. | staff

Despite being slammed with customers, dozens of other restaurants throughout eastern Idaho are in the same boat. A massive worker shortage is causing many eateries to adjust their hours so employees don’t experience burnout and the majority of restaurants have “Help Wanted” signs taped to their doors.

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Diablas Kitchen Owner Deana Brower tells staffing shortages have forced her to close on days when she has a big catering job lined up.

“I’ve been doing catering for over 12 years now and a lot of these relationships I’ve had for a long time. I’ve had to (place a higher priority on the catering) because of that,” Brower says.

Closing the restaurant to keep up with catering hasn’t had a negative impact on the overall performance of the business, but Brower says it’s frustrating for customers planning to eat there because there is no pattern to it.

“I’m hoping to get at least two more cooks and two to three more servers because we have a lot of different avenues we could open up if we had a lot more people (to work for us).”

Matt Pyles, the general manager at Fresco Kitchen & Grill in Rexburg, says he and his small staff are working hard to keep up with the number of orders. Pyles puts in 80 hours a week to avoid limiting the store’s hours of operation.

“We’re thankful for all the customers we’ve got. We’re very busy and that’s a great problem to have,” says Pyles. “We’re currently hiring three more servers, three more cooks, one more hostess and one dishwasher. We’re not getting enough applications to fulfill those jobs.”

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Historically, Fresco has been a popular place for student employees attending Brigham Young University-Idaho. There was a time when Pyles would have 50 applications to sift through at the beginning of every semester.

“This last semester, I got 10 applications,” he says.

Fresco Kitchen & Grill at 1181 South Yellowstone Highway in Rexburg. | Google, May 2018

Pyles thinks a combination of several factors is attributing to the shortage of workers, including government stimulus checks and the desire for higher wages.

“People have their stimulus checks, which may be getting them by. For college kids, if you get a couple thousand dollars, that’s all you need for the semester,” Pyles explains. “I also think there’s just not a willingness to work in the hospitality industry as much as there used to be.”

Brower also feels the stimulus checks are a contributing factor, but says there’s more to it than that. Many of her employees have been single parents and she says childcare has been a huge issue that’s impacted her payroll.

“A lot of daycares had to close because of COVID and a lot of restaurant workers are single parents and that makes a huge difference. On top of that, if you have to homeschool your children, you can’t go to work. My hope is that when school starts back up, people will be able to work again,” says Brower.

The last year of shutdowns “was incredibly difficult and draining for restaurant workers,” she says, and that’s also played a role.

If the trend continues, Pyles says he may have to raise prices for customers and increase wages to attract new employees, which could have damaging effects.

“If you raise prices, customers don’t come and then if they don’t come, you cut hours (for employees) and the raises don’t do any good,” he says.

After working long hours every week for over a year now, Pyles says it’s difficult to be optimistic about the future. He wants to believe things ultimately will improve and that people will start applying for jobs again.

“I hope that come September, when college gets back in session, that we’ll be back to getting 50 applications again. We’re going to try and hold off on doing anything drastic until then, but if we don’t get those applications, we’ll have to do something,” says Pyles.

Pyles is concerned about restaurants permanently closing if the worker shortage becomes a long-term problem that prevents owners from adequately serving customers.

Restaurants are practically begging for help and Pyles is encouraging those with a desire to work hard to apply.

“If you want to (make deliveries), you can start tonight,” he says. “It’s a great stepping stone to work at a restaurant for a year or two. I encourage people to do that.”

In the meantime, Brower is asking Diablas customers to “be patient and kind” about “things that are outside of everybody’s control.”

“There are some things we can’t do anything about, whether it’s a shortage of a product or delivery issues. So people need to remember that we’re human beings with feelings and emotions and we need to be kind and supportive of one another, especially now,” she says.

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Diablas Kitchen Owner Deana Brower inside her downtown location in June of 2020. | Rett Nelson,