Statistics don’t lie, but they don’t always show the whole story. Case in point: COVID-19’s impact on bar employment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a 13% unemployment rate within the hospitality industry in March 2021, more than double the unemployment rate the BLS reported for the average profession at that time. These numbers are just one more piece of evidence of the pandemic’s unmatched brutality on the industry, which has been ongoing since the first wave of lockdowns occurred.
An unexpected situation is becoming more prominent as vaccines roll out and bars start their slow return to relative normalcy, however. Bars nationwide are seeking talent to serve the growing throng of customers eager to return to bar stools, yet they’re struggling to fill open slots. These stories seem to contradict the data, but a deeper look shows a more complex issue than what’s seen on the surface.
Mass Exodus, Meager Return
The current restaffing issue’s roots trace back to the pandemic’s early days. State-mandated lockdowns left most bars little choice other than to lay off or furlough their staff—an action that induced copious amounts of soul-searching. “The layoffs were a gut check for a lot of bartenders to see if they wanted to stay in the industry or even in the city,” says Matthew Belanger, the general manager of Death & Co in Los Angeles. “Over time, several of them wound up scattered by the four winds.”
These proverbial gusts guided now-former bar staffers back to school or down a new career path. All levels of the bar industry were affected, from low-level barbacks who may have already had one foot out the door to senior-level bar directors. While bar operators generally harbor no grudges against these pivoters, the size of the holes left behind are just now starting to be measured. “When people were leaving during the pandemic’s height, it didn’t hit as much, because there were so many other things going on,” says Erick Castro, a partner in Polite Provisions and Raised by Wolves in San Diego and Boilermaker in New York City. “Now that places are opening again, the issue is really starting to sink in.”
This mass exodus isn’t a complete bust for bars. The workers who have remained in the talent pool are generally the ones most passionate about the craft. Still, this silver lining comes sprinkled with flecks of gray, as those still willing to stay in the game aren’t all ready to come off the sidelines just yet. Part of the reluctance is financial in nature. Continuing payments from extended federal and state unemployment programs are causing some workers to be reluctant to return, particularly to low-paying positions. “It’s understandable really,” says Jeremy Buck, the owner and operator of Coterie in Charleston, South Carolina. “If the amount you’re getting from unemployment is close to what you may earn while working, why would you go back and do something that’s hard?”
And then there’s the pandemic itself, which is still ongoing despite the wider availability of vaccines as of mid-spring 2021. Its effects created awful conditions for bartenders during the past year, and seeing an increased number of people prematurely disregarding basic precautions as though the pandemic were already over has reinforced workers’ concerns. “The war is not over yet. The trouble is that more people are acting like it’s over,” says Brian Grummert, the operations manager at Subject, on NYC’s Lower East Side. “It’s tough to be gung ho about coming back to the bar when more people are starting to be lax about things.”
Turning to New Talent
Because so many bartenders have either left the industry for good or aren’t ready to jump back into the fray, opportunities abound for novices eager to learn the craft. Bar owners have increasingly tapped into this reservoir of raw talent as bars inch closer to full capacity. This can be a daunting effort for craft cocktail bar owners and managers. After all, bringing new hires up to the level their customers expect is just one of many critical tasks to perform as they ready their spaces for a post-pandemic world.
Lindsay Nader and Trevor Easter, the marketing director and creative director, respectively, at the Sacramento spot Snug Bar, have borne the full brunt of this challenge. They lost most of their former staff to career shifts during the pandemic. When the bar initially opened in 2019, the duo found that transforming their new hires into polished pros was a stressful process, which they overcame by reaching into their past for inspiration. “We’ve run the hiring and training process the way I remembered how Jim [Meehan] hired his staff when I started at PDT,” says Nader. “He created a mentoring culture that made you develop an organic commitment to learning the craft. We wanted to achieve that level with our new hires, where it just felt natural for them to want to learn.”
Part of establishing this culture involves creating a comfortable environment that’s conducive to learning, which they feel will help their bar in the long run. “We have a wholehearted belief in radical transparency,” says Easter. “We wanted to be honest with the new staff as they came in that we probably wouldn’t be offering them big Friday or Saturday shifts right out of the gate. This slows down the education process, which is important. Because of this, when the rubber hits the road after the pandemic, they’ll be fully prepared.”
A Hopeful Future
As the scramble to bring new hires onboard continues in the bar industry, a dash of hope helps to balance the stress. New hires tend to bring new ideas, which may positively affect drinks programs after the initial hiring and training periods. “When you have a full staff, you have a better chance to learn more about other people’s styles and methods,” says Buck. “When that happens, it helps with creativity.”
Some industry veterans also anticipate that the new talent may cause sizable shifts in the cocktail landscape, including a possible return to the ideals of the early days of the craft cocktail resurgence. “Cocktails were becoming very deliberate in their opulence,” says Castro. “However, we’re seeing the new wave of bartenders reeling things in a little bit. They’re going back to the basics of craft, and they know how to use these basics to build drinks that capture the guests’ interest.”
Of course, it may take some time for this future to be realized. It’s impossible to predict when bars may be fully staffed again. Even if unemployment numbers drop as the country begins to make its way out of the pandemic, the bar industry may still be hurting. But every new hire brings the industry closer to a future worth being excited about.