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Has Denver’s Restaurant Labor Pool Dried Up?

Area restaurants panic, get creative to staff up

Ohana Island Kitchen is one of the Denver-area restaurants facing a shortage of staffers this season
Adam Larkey/Eater

Update: This story has been updated to reflect Grateful Bread Company’s reopening in Golden as of Saturday, July 14.

Across Denver, the restaurant industry’s labor shortage has reached new levels as of late. Businesses from LoHi’s Ohana Island Kitchen to Golden’s Grateful Bread Company have had to close down temporarily following serious staffing shortfalls, while new Denver restaurants are struggling to staff and start up.

With the state’s low unemployment rate and competition stemming from an onslaught of new restaurant openings, there is a sizable gap between the number of job openings and food industry workers to fill them, according to the business owners. On Craigslist alone, 909 open listings emerge from a search for “chef” in the Denver area.

“I didn’t think it would be so challenging to incentivize employees to stick around,” Ohana co-owner Louis Colburn said. He was forced to close the family-owned poke shop for one day of business last month following a series of no-calls and no-shows by employees. To make Ohana more attractive as a workplace, he and Regan Colburn had increased wages, provided holiday bonuses, and taken employees to Estes Park for a company retreat.

“The kindness doesn’t pay off,” Louis said. And workers often aren’t willing to put forth the effort when there are other options available, Regan added. “Why would they want to work eight hours a day when they can hop in their car and drive for an hour with Uber or Lyft?”

Grateful Bread Co. on Friday rebooted its wholesale arm and on Saturday reopened its Golden bakery — 429 Violet Street — after closing both in June. Owner Jeff Cleary said he was forced to close for a month due to low staffing.

“As hard as it is to find good cooks, it’s harder to find bakers,” Cleary said, noting he is now partnering with the Colorado Restaurant Association to form a bakers apprenticeship program. Spending the last couple weeks interviewing, hiring, and training new people, Cleary also took the downtime to consolidate production and eliminate some of the most time-consuming products and processes, he said.

An employment ad for Safta, which is searching for 88 new Denver employees ahead of its August opening
Safta [official]

Yet-to-open Denver restaurants are facing a similar plight. As Alon Shaya and his New Orleans-based Pomegranate Hospitality team prepare to open Safta at the new Source Hotel, the hiring team has peppered Denver with promotional materials about job openings. And candidates were called upon for open recruitment days in the hopes of hiring 88 people to staff the front- and back-of-house.

As of July 10, Shaya said nearly 30 people had received and accepted offers. If Safta does not have enough people on board before opening — slated for the first half of August — “We’ll just have to adjust our hours of operation to meet what’s realistic,” Shaya said.

“To me the most important thing is hiring the right people,” he added. Pomegranate Hospitality provides nightly staff dinners between service, paid time off, performance reviews, and a director of people and culture who oversees the team. Thanks to the cultural investment, Shaya says the 67-person team at Safta’s sister restaurant in New Orleans has lost only two people since opening earlier this year.

Back in Denver, Justin Brunson, of Old Major, Masterpiece Deli, and Culture Meat & Cheese at Denver Central Market, says these days he has two people splitting tasks that used to be done by one. Though he hasn’t had cooks or servers walk off the job or fail to show up for a shift, Brunson says sales are down 30 percent at Old Major. “There are a lot of places that aren’t going to make it this year,” Brunson said. “I think Denver is in a dark place.”

The present labor challenges aren’t unique to Denver’s hospitality market, though. “It’s the same story I’ve heard everywhere,” Shaya added. “We’re all dealing with the same problem. Even David Chang, he came into Saba and said he’s having the hardest time hiring people.”

Ohana Island Kitchen

2563 15th Street, , CO 80211 (303) 718-6580 Visit Website

The Source

3350 Brighton Boulevard, , CO 80216 (720) 443-1135 Visit Website

Old Major

3316 Tejon Street, , CO 80211 (720) 420-0622 Visit Website