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PROGRESS 2022: Restaurateur describes staffing challenges

News FIle Photo Chef Eric Peterson, owner of the Fresh Palate and Nucleus Lounge, talks about the future of Alpena in this 2022 News archive photo.

ALPENA — Privately owned restaurants are still trying to bounce back from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other challenges.

According to estimates by the National Restaurant Association, 90,000 restaurants had closed across the U.S. by the spring of 2021. Those that remain open today have faced staffing issues, supply shortages, and difficulty attracting workers because many would-be employees demand higher-than-sustainable wages for typical service jobs such as washing dishes, bussing tables, and serving customers.

Eric Peterson opened the Fresh Palate 15 years ago in an effort to provide healthy, locally sourced, high-quality food to Alpena in an upscale-yet-comfortable environment. The pandemic created many challenges, but what emerged has created even more.

In an interview last week, Peterson said a lack of work ethic has made it difficult to find and retain reliable workers who want to do more than the bare minimum for a fair wage that matches their experience level.

“There’s definitely a staffing issue,” Peterson said. “There was a huge staffing issue in the summertime. And, then, I feel that it has kind of relaxed a little bit, and people are reapplying.”

They may be applying, but, after chain restaurants such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s advertised wages as high as $20 or more per hour, workers expect to be paid more than a small business can afford for an entry-level food service job. Those workers often bring little or no experience to the table, Peterson said.

“They feel like they’re very deserving of a very high pay for very low expectations,” Peterson said. “And, so, the issue isn’t so much that nobody is applying anymore. It’s that the pool of people that are applying feel like what their worth is to your company is well beyond their skill level.”

He’s looking for workers who want to work, which includes offering friendly customer service and making the guest experience special.

“There’s still a shortage of well-acclimated, experienced workers that know how to work, and what their actual worth is,” Peterson said.

He added that many of the challenges have been exacerbated by big corporate chains instilling in people — many of them young and looking for their first job — a sense that they deserve to be paid more than is sustainable for small businesses such as the Fresh Palate.

“I do believe that the corporate world has really put their hands around the neck of the mom and pop shops who don’t have many, many locations and deep pocketbooks, with huge advertising abilities and media manipulation,” Peterson said. “It really put the hurt on the small guy who does not have that deep pocketbook, who’s really, especially through COVID, ended up — if they made it — working more themself, as a business owner, and living paycheck to paycheck, themselves.”

Being an independent restaurant owner has never been easy, but Peterson’s goal has always been to provide flavorful, unique, nutritious, organic, sustainable food in a world coated with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and chemical additives such as MSG (monosodium glutamate).

He added that, during the pandemic, governmental assistance was available, but now, small businesses are back on their own.

“Through COVID, I received plenty of help,” Peterson said. “But that help ran out, and I needed every penny of it to stay alive.”

He said he went from managing the restaurant in 2019 as a boss/owner to working 80 hours a week in 2021 and 2022 as owner/operator, with few hands on deck to keep the ship afloat.

“Now, on the other side of COVID, that money’s gone, and small businesses have been hurt, inflation has gone through the frickin’ roof, and, when you have to start somebody at a wage that you really can’t even digest yourself, it’s really tightened everything up,” Peterson said.

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