Interstellar BBQ chef-owner John Bates posted an ad on service industry job site Poached looking for front-of-house staff at his restaurant in Austin’s Anderson Mill area. Crickets. A Craigslist version of the same produced only two applicants, neither with restaurant experience.

Contigo chef-owner Andrew Wiseheart thought an industry ready to boom after pandemic-forced hibernation would allow him to cherry pick the best talent available. The staff at his ranch-inspired restaurant near Austin’s Mueller development remains incomplete.

Foreign & Domestic chef-owners Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley received a cover letter from an applicant who stated simply: “Hey, no weekends, no late nights.”

Welcome to the world of restaurant staffing in Austin, where the unemployment rate of about 5% is lower than any other metro area in the state. After pivoting, pushing and persevering through the a year of the coronavirus pandemic, restaurants are struggling to fill kitchen and front-of-house positions. What was already a problem before the pandemic has multiplied, leading to shorthanded staffs and stressed-out employees who are ill-equipped to provide high-level service and exhausted owners searching for answers in a hypercompetitive and talent-drained market.

Put simply, the jobs are coming back, but the workers are not.

Restaurant workers, who come in close contact with the public, were not designated as essential workers by the state of Texas in the first phases of vaccine rollout. Some, spun out from a year of worrying about their own personal health, have left the industry in search of more stability. 

The rising cost of living in Austin also has made service industry work untenable for many. An industry that has long battled toxic workforce problems and dealt with natural attrition is taking on more and more water. Solutions are hard to come by. 

“I thought I would have more success looking for people," Interstellar BBQ owner John Bates said of trying to hire staff at his restaurant on FM 620.

How COVID-19 affected Austin’s restaurant industry

The leisure and hospitality industries comprise about 10% of the workforce in the Austin metro area, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, but the industry is struggling to attract and maintain workers.

The total number of non-farm jobs in the area is down 1.3% since March of 2020, but leisure and hospitality jobs are down about 16%.