The Upper West Side’s Great Restaurant Retention Issue

Fred’s is weathering the retention issues facing restaurants thanks to their longstanding place in the community, the owner said.

Here today and gone tomorrow. 

Restaurant owners on the Upper West Side are facing a different side of the national worker shortages: they can’t seem to keep newly hired and trained employees on staff, a costly hurdle as they continue to navigate Covid-19 pandemic protocols.

The food service industry is among those hit the hardest by high rates of resignations, according to data released by the Department of Labor, showing a record 4.3 million people quit their jobs in August alone—the highest “quit rate” since the first report in late 2000. For more than a dozen restaurants located between West 80th and 110th Streets across Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway on the Upper West Side, the most financially draining aspect of the Covid-19 pandemic is retention.  

“A lot of ‘lifers’ left the city and the industry since the pandemic because they had time at home to explore new passions or career paths,” said James Wells, a general manager at Amity Hall, a modern American craft beer bar & restaurant located at 982 Amsterdam Ave. “Lifers” is a term he uses to refer to people who considered the restaurant industry their forever job.

 In a post-pandemic climate that has forced Americans to rethink their work and life priorities, many people are more willing and able to change jobs as much as they want. For this reason, it’s been difficult for restaurants to find qualified employees, and they have no choice but to hire people with no prior experience—a major issue, especially for kitchen help that requires cooking experience. 

For brand new restaurants like Pekarna, a Slovenian restaurant with multiple levels and private spaces, or The Ellington, which isn’t new so much as relocated and expanded, opening during the Covid-19 pandemic meant hiring young workers, a disadvantage. 

“Most of them are people you would never hire normally, but you didn’t have a choice,” said Dean O’Neill, Pekarna’s owner & CEO. “I had to get them up to speed through training quickly.”

Recruiting and training new hires requires time, effort and mostly money. But since the time the new employee will spend working for the restaurant is now very unpredictable, managers see little-to-no return on their investment. Turnover costs arise when workers leave the organization and need to be replaced.

“I am confident in finding staff,” said Glenda Sansone, The Ellington’s owner, who has 40 employees. The Ellington runs the outdoor restaurant in Riverside Park and reopened the indoor location on W. 105 Street and Broadway. “I am just not confident they’ll stay.”

Some of her recruits sometimes stay as little as a couple of weeks, she said. Sansone opened her restaurant a few months ago, only for dinner—because it was hard to determine the future of the imposed mandates— and lost about five people since August. She plans to expand staff and hours soon for lunch. 

David Honor, the owner of Fred’s, a half bar, half casual American burger restaurant located on Amsterdam Ave. and W. 83 Street, employs 35 people, including servers, hosts and kitchen employees. This number is “just a little less” than before the pandemic but does not affect the restaurant’s success overall.     

Though the retention issue significantly impacts productivity, these UWS restaurants say they do not have that much trouble.

 “I’ve been very fortunate,” said Honor. “I’ve been here for 25 years, so it’s different for me than someone who’s been open for a year or two years or even five years because I have a certain following not only of customers but of people who want to work.” 

For Honor, Fred’s longstanding place has helped, but the area also plays an important role in most of these establishments’ good standing. 

“The neighborhood has really embraced us,” said Michael Goff, the general manager for Moonrise Izakaya, a Japanese restaurant that opened during the pandemic. He hasn’t lost many people either. “Tips are better, so it’s worth it working here.”

The Upper West Side is a residential neighborhood, where not only do families regularly eat out, but it’s easier to find workers than in other nearby communities. 

Savannah Trimble, 23, quickly got employed after people left for school at Hi-life, a classic American bar-restaurant, when she stopped to give her resume to random restaurants on Amsterdam Avenue.

“They just hired me right there,” said Trimble. “They were like, ‘we just put out a Craigslist ad for a hostess, and we would prefer to just hire you on the spot, rather than, like, try to find someone online.'”

Trimble had worked in the customer service industry before, but she stayed at Hi-Life for only about three weeks in September after getting another job related to her college major in media studies and production.

Neighborhood support is a recurring theme for restaurant owners and managers. 

“I was very confident that my restaurant would be successful here,” said Sansone, The Ellington’s owner. “If it was in Times Square, I am not sure I would have opened.”

Some other Upper West Side managers or workers point out how restaurants in corporate areas or the theater district are having a more difficult time. Tony Kunjcherie, who works at La Sirène, a French restaurant located on Amsterdam Ave. and W. 80 Street, and sometimes at the other location at 558 Broome St. in SoHo, noticed the retention difference between the two locations. In SoHo, new employees don’t stay long at all.

“People come for like two-three months, and then they leave,” said Kunjcherie.

The reason for this struggle to retain personnel: there are not as many people in these neighborhoods anymore. 

“In an area, such as the Financial District, where there used to be people primarily going to work, some workers are not back in the office yet,” said Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of New York State Restaurant Association. “So, there is definitely a challenge for restaurants there who relied on those clientele to be successful.”

Overall, the staff turnover can take a toll on the employees who stay, resulting in their resignation. 

Jose Espinosa was a district manager for Le Pain Quotidien, a French restaurant with several Manhattan locations, for about 14 years before quitting in July. He oversaw the reopening and bringing back the staff members a year before in Midtown, West Village, the Financial District and Soho, in July 2020, during the pandemic. But employees didn’t want to return to work because of unemployment benefits, he said. The restaurant implemented an incentive through “help wanted” ads, promising a $1,000 bonus for people who work long enough.

“The crazy thing is that it was people who never worked in a restaurant before that was applying, and getting all these people trained up was challenging,” said Espinosa. “It was really like a 24/7 job. I was mentally tired, not physically. I needed to get that mental back.”

Going to school, needing a break, moving on with other job opportunities or moving in with parents are the main reasons for the “Great Resignation,” a term coined by Anthony Kotz, an associate professor of management at Mays Business School, Texas A&M University, who studies the impact of the pandemic on businesses.

 As restaurant owners and managers continue to combat this retention issue, some restaurant leaders have found that providing a fun and safe environment where employees are paid fairly and feel valued is essential to retain staff.

“Post pandemic, employers have to be sensitive to employee’s need,” said James Wells, a general manager at Amity Hall. “They have to make sure the staff is comfortable and happy.” 

About the author(s)

Alma Beauvais is an aspiring magazine writer currently pursuing her master’s degree at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.