COLORADO SPRINGS — The next time you go out to eat there's a good chance you'll experience longer wait times than you're used to, missing menu items, and unexpected closures tied to the labor crisis and supply chain issues impacting our local restaurants. News5 takes a deep dive into why things are so tough for Colorado's restaurants.
The Colorado Restaurant Association says 9 out of 10 restaurants here in our state are operating understaffed. Industry leaders are calling it a labor crisis that could take 3 to 5 years to fully recover from.
"They've seen 18 months of hardship, devastation, and now they can't hire enough people to start the recovery process. I think this is a major problem in Colorado right now," said Colorado Restaurant Association President & CEO Sonia Riggs.
In a recent survey of 191 restaurants across Colorado, several of them in southern Colorado, 90% report having trouble hiring staff right now and 68% are having trouble retaining the staff they have.
"It's everybody in the restaurant. It's the people in the kitchen who are cooking your food. It's people who are serving your food. It's really the whole team that we're seeing shortages for," said Riggs.
The labor numbers do show a tough journey for restaurants since the start of the pandemic. In February of 2020 there were 234,500 workers in Colorado restaurants. By December of last year that labor force was just 171,400, that's down more than 63,000 workers.
This year people have gone back to work, with a restaurant labor force of 223,600 workers, but overall the workforce is still down almost 11,000 workers.
"Folks are working overtime. They are doing the best they can. They may have bigger sections than they used to. So they might be serving more customers than they were. So people are doing more with less and it is a really challenging time. So we really are asking people to be patient," said Riggs.
At Pizzeria Rustica in Old Colorado City owner Jay Gust says the last 18 months have been brutal for the restaurants he runs and others.
"It's almost like we're all starting fresh again even though we've all been established for 10, 15, 20, some places 30-plus years," said Gust, who owns Ascent Restaurant Group.
With a shortage of staff and even new hires who haven't shown up, local customers and tourists are having to adjust to Pizzeria Rustica's now limited hours.
"These are the hours that we can work in order to make sure people aren't burnt out and that they're doing the job right," said Gust.
He agrees with the Colorado Restaurant Association who says if you want a career in the restaurant industry you don't need experience and now is the time to go for it.
"You are going to get the training you need and we do want to see you succeed," said Gust.
"And there's so many ways to work your way up. 8 out of 10 restaurant owners started in an entry level position in a restaurant. So, that says something about this industry," said Riggs.
Also, many restaurants are offering bonuses and incentives not just to hire staff right now, but to retain them in the months to come.
There are many restaurant industry jobs available in Colorado on the state's job board: