Chickens only grow two wings.
That’s one of myriad factors Wisconsin Restaurant Association President and CEO Kristine Hillmer described in an interview Monday when discussing the product shortage affecting restaurateurs and most other businesses.
“There isn’t one fault and there’s not one solution,” Hillmer said. “After COVID-19, we are now seeing all the related ripple effects in the market.”
Unfortunately, Hillmer believes the product shortage is going to get worse.
Some of the most common shortages restaurateurs are struggling with are chicken wings and cooking oil. Other shortages or price increases are affecting pasta and paper products such as carryout containers, straws and drink container lids.
Restaurant owners are dealing with worker shortages and hiccups in the supply chain with many items remaining in cargo ships in ports, keeping supplies from getting to manufacturers or out for further distribution.
Hillmer said one of the factors contributing to a meat and milk shortage goes back to the early days of COVID-19 when schools and restaurants were closed. Farmers dumped their milk as they ran out of capacity to store it as end users—schools and restaurants—were shut down. Further complications emerged when there were COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants. Cattle ranchers faced similar dilemmas with fewer customers and continued costly upkeep of raising animals. Some farmers began to cull their herds.
“Farmers cut back on their dairy cattle because they were expensive to feed and keep and they didn’t have a market for the product,” Hillmer said. “They are building their herds up now and that will take time.”
During the past year, many family farms and some smaller processors closed as issues arose with shortages of truck drivers, cargo ship workers and rail workers and further cost increases.
“All of that is combined to create a really difficult situation in the restaurant industry and throughout the economy,” she said.
Prior to COVID-19, Hillmer said there was already a growing global worker shortage driven by a lack of available childcare and a decline in the working-age population in the state.
“We know that in the state of Wisconsin our population growth is slack. The number of available working-age adults is flat, and it’s predicted to go negative,” she said. “We don’t have enough working-age adults to take jobs, so competition will be fierce.”
She said Wisconsin Department of Tourism statistics show the state lost 22% of its hospitality workers amid COVID-19. Many of them are permanent losses as other sectors such as manufacturing, retail and health care kept hiring. The loss of hospitality workers coupled with baby boomers continuing to retire exacerbates the shortage of restaurant workers.
While some retired baby boomers had part-time jobs in the hospitality industry in the past, many of them aren’t returning to the workforce after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teenagers aren’t working as much as in past decades, either. It used to be common for young people to get their first job at age 16, often in restaurants. Today, many teens are doing more extracurricular activities, and having family time and have a decreased interest in working.
With so many challenges to restaurateurs, Hillmer said the Wisconsin Restaurant Association is helping members become preferred employers.
“If you can retain your employees and if they are happy in that job, they will find friends to come work with them. That’s half the battle,” Hillmer said.
The association is looking at training to build skills and identify potential people to enter the workforce. The restaurant industry, she said, is a second-chance industry offering opportunities to adults who might have been out of the workforce for a time for various reasons and need to restart or begin a career.
“There are countless examples of people who started out as a dishwasher or busser and worked themselves up to manage or own their own place,” Hillmer added.
Hillmer said many restaurants are making tough decisions regarding hours of operation. While many restaurants traditionally are closed on Mondays, they are adding a Sunday or Tuesday off to give employees two days off together for a weekend.
As restaurant owners and staff navigate this challenging time, Hillmer said it’s important for consumers to continue to support them and to be patient, kind and compassionate to those who have been working so hard to provide dining experiences.
“Patience and understanding go a long way as restaurateurs try to figure out short- and long-term strategies to remain open and give you great hospitality,” she said. “Communities are only thriving if they have restaurants.”