Harding Lee Smith, chef/owner of the Grill Room & Bar on Exchange Street in Portland, takes a moment from his work on a recent evening to embrace his son Griffen. (Portland Phoenix/Natalie Ladd)
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Dismally low front-of-house restaurant staffing continues to be a post-quarantine conundrum.

I’m told places like the classic Back Bay Grill, tapas-favorite Sur Lie, and West End brasserie Chaval are in search of full- and part-time servers. We expect such news from the kitchen, but the turnover of servers in fine-tuned, usually full, highly acclaimed restaurants is a new one for me.

The million-dollar question, with just as many answers, is why? Let’s look at the uniqueness of the situation.

This isn’t the typical “grass-is-greener” game of musical jobs Portland servers play, or someone getting fired for being late every night for a week. People were told to stay home because of the government-mandated shutdown and then asked to work under scary conditions with maskless patrons who thought the pandemic was a left-wing hoax. If 6-feet-apart office workers are still hesitant to return to a sanitized workplace, it’s a double whammy for servers. 

Prior to the pandemic, full-time restaurant people rarely had three or even two days off in a row. Early on, many binged “Tiger King” on Netflix, went stir crazy, and panicked without cash tips on hand. But there’s no denying the gift of time that was forcibly bestowed on them; folks slowed down, got off the rat’s wheel of weekend double shifts, didn’t worry about finding a clean bistro apron, and had a chance to reflect and look at their lives.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how much I would have relished being home with my daughters when they were younger. Instead, the sitter would bring them to my packed restaurant job for quick hugs and kisses before taking them home and putting them to bed. The owner never liked it, but I couldn’t go on without seeing them, even for a few minutes. 

“I get it,” said a friend. “I’ve been a bartender and server for 19 years and I don’t have any children so I missed the routine of the job, but my coworkers who have kids were happy to be home with them. But it killed all of us financially. We did a GoFundMe for one of our teammates who was feeling the pinch before help kicked in. Man, that unemployment paperwork was a mess.” 

We talked about the drop in income for both the house and employees when they finally reopened and were able to use patio seating at 50 percent capacity.

“By then, we had lost a few people because it didn’t make sense to pay babysitters, who (coworkers) said were also hard to find,” my friend said. “My best bud went to ride it out with his parents in Colorado and decided not to come back. He was nervous about his rent and didn’t want to re-sign a lease not knowing what would happen.”

When asked about his own housing situation, he sheepishly admitted he called his mortgage company to work something out. “They were very kind about it,” he said, awkwardly looking down at his sneakers.

Another factor to consider is Maine is the oldest state in the union with a median age of nearly 45. Sadly, many career workers with a love for the restaurant business running through their veins age out of physically demanding positions. With younger people fleeing the state and older servers no longer willing or able to work those weekend doubles, the candidate pool shrinks.

My friend also agreed it isn’t just the extra $300 in unemployment keeping servers away. It’s a wake-up call that maybe something better is out there – be it school, a different career, or a physical move. And that working people deserve benefits, family time, and an appreciation for each individual not often associated with the culture of the hospitality business. 

Many eateries are approaching the shortage with a cut in days, reduced menu offerings, and increased prices to reflect supply-chain hikes. But the fact remains that COVID-19 is never far from anyone’s mind. Unvaccinated customers, resilient variants, talk of vaccine boosters, and a rise in case numbers are unsettling reminders that our restaurant folks can’t avoid masses of people in close proximity if they want to make a living. Top that off with the changing cultural norms, and things begin to make a semblance of unfortunate, but reasonable sense.

On a happier note, BFF and I are committed to supporting those still in the trenches the best we can. Sitting in our favorite seats at the recently reopened Grill Room & Bar, we were thrilled it was busy and fully staffed. Yes, the prices have gone up and menu choices have been reduced. But I teared up when chef/owner Harding Lee Smith took a moment to step off the line, set an example, and hug his son who came bounding in out of nowhere. Everyone, all of us, customers, staff, and especially the chef, smiled.

Maybe, it’s time to change the staffing shortage question from why to a brand new how.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected]