Strapped for Staff: Northland Restaurants Balance Business, Employee Burnout through Labor Shortage

For some restaurants, it means cutting back on hours of operation while trying to balance the quality of life for the workers they do have.

DULUTH/CLOQUET, Minn.- From Duluth to smaller cities like Cloquet, restaurants big and small are experiencing the effects of being short on labor. For some, it means cutting back on hours of operation while trying to balance the quality of life for the workers they do have.

Just last week, Family Tradition Restaurant in Cloquet has had to close their restaurant on Mondays.

“It was a heartbreaking decision to have to make but we’re pushing everybody to their limit,” said Manager Kenny Heehn. “And I don’t want anyone else to quit, I don’t want anyone else to go anywhere.”

While it’s a smaller place, manager Kenny Heehn says without at least two more workers in his kitchen the staff is getting spread too thin.

This has been affecting their service, even going into the summer. “I usually have a lot more outdoor tables, too and we decided against having a whole bunch because we can’t keep up,” he said.

Heehn said it’s especially hard to slow things down for their customers on Sunnyside Drive, where they’ve called home for at least 30 years. “We’re having like one of our busiest years. I mean, its crazy busy all the time,” said the Manager.

“So it’s really hard for us to be that busy and not be able to keep up with the demand. Y’know, we feel bad we’re not as fast as we normally are but there’s nothing we can do we don’t have the staff to keep up with it,” he said.

Meanwhile, nearby Carmen’s Bar and Restaurant is similarly short on kitchen staff.

“Two months we’re advertising, looking for cooks and I think I had two applications for an actual cooking position,” Owner and Manager Ryan Lindstrom said.

The lack of labor has caused Lindstrom and his brother two put in extra hours in back and after they both just had babies.

“I think we’re probably putting in between 50 and 60 hours in the kitchen and the probably another 15 to 20 in the bar,” he said.

And he’s not the only one having to pull the extra weight.

“Last week every one of my bartender/managers worked shifts in the kitchen,” said Lindstrom. “Three of the girl bartenders were doing dishes and stuff and on nights they were supposed to have off. Instead of being their night off from bartending they’re in the kitchen helping me out.”

Lindstrom says they’ve had to turn down catering events during their busiest time of the year and even stopped two for one burger night special.

“It’s hard when you know you can do a better job but you just don’t have the bodies to do it,” he said.

Even larger restaurant companies like Grandma’s in Canal Park are dealing with the shortage.

“Now we’re sitting in a position where we cannot open our restaurants open 100%. Down in Canal Park for the first time in 45 years Grandma’s main floor restaurants is closed for lunch during weekdays,” said Director of Operations Tony Boen.

“We could use about 70 more people at this restaurant alone. So we’re probably at about half of what we need,” he said.

According to Boen, the shortage being felt nationwide is a multi-faceted problem.

“People, they found other jobs, there’s the unemployment bump everybody talks about, and that’s a part of it. It’s not the whole part of it. Childcare’s a thing for families,” he said.

And while the company will shift its employees around to fully staff Grandma’s Restaurant for Grandma’s Marathon weekend ahead, there’s no guarantee that will continue this summer.

“We’ll be turning people away,” said Boen. “We have to. We hope people are patient.”

“Any summer working in Canal Park is a fun, fun experience and it’s ‘go-go-go,’” he said. “But it’s been to much ‘go-go-go’ for our staff. And they need a quality of life as well.”

It’s another Northland restaurant doing what it can to take care of staff, and maintain business.

“Unprecedented is a word being thrown around way too much,” said Boen. “But it is what it is.”

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