Image: Shutterstock by Felixico and Paweena Sae-Ung, Seattle Met composite image
It's just pizza and wine. If anything goes wrong, we give them more pizza and wine.” With those reassuring words from the owner of Bar Cotto, I began my first-ever shift in the food service industry. In what world is a career journalist—who’d never served a table in her life—recruited to work in a busy Capitol Hill restaurant? When I'm literally the only option. Welcome to the staffing shortages of Seattle dining.
I assumed Brandon Barnato—said Bar Cotto owner, and a good friend—was joking when he suggested I come work a few shifts at his Italian joint, known for wood-fired pizzas and negronis. My resume includes stints shelving library books and proofreading technical manuals, hardly robust experience in customer service. But Brandon had struggled to find staff at Bar Cotto in recent months, to the point he works almost every day himself, sometimes the solo host, server, and bartender.
The offer kept coming; he meant it.
Fresh off a perfect score on the food handler card test and anxiously trying to remember the difference between diavola and provola, I showed up one Tuesday afternoon while the cooks were already forming pizza dough into rounds in the open kitchen. I busied myself setting tables and trying to not lock myself in the walk-in.
Customers filed in while I was still ferrying silverware, the very first ordering a black manhattan before I could sputter that a real server would be along shortly. The best thing about being a rookie server is that you can use the “It's my first day!” line in apology while shakily filling water glasses; attempting to pour one mixed with ice was laughably hard. Full disclosure: I broke out the excuse again on day two. But to a person, every customer was friendly and patient, as though the high of dining out again after the pandemic shutdown hadn't faded.
I expected to feel superfluous in the dining room bustle, struggling to trace the rhythms of outgoing food and table turnover, but before long I performed just about every task but making cocktails (you’re welcome, Bar Cotto patrons). I took orders, ran checks, and bagged orders for DoorDash delivery.
For about five hours we handled the entire front of house together, Brandon as the obvious lead. As exhaustion set in between my shoulder blades, I appreciated the instant gratification of a table cleaned, an order delivered—and could only marvel at how lost I’d be in a bigger dining room.
The duo of cooks in the open kitchen faced much more complex tasks. Several kitchen staffers had followed Brandon from Via Tribunali when he bought Bar Cotto from Ethan Stowell in 2018; most boast more years of experience than I had hours on the job—even by day two.
A newbie would be lost in the whirl of food prep. Somehow Bar Cotto’s cooks could toss a parma salad and assemble bruschetta while simultaneously slinging pizzas out of the wood-fired oven, never one flat crust over-browned. I assumed the cherry red Berkel meat slicer in the middle of the restaurant was mostly retro decor until one chef deftly shaved a pile of salami mid-service. Dozens of multicourse meals were executed and delivered by a crew small enough to fit in a single Uber.
As far as I know, no one had to be dished extra pizza and wine in return for my handful of screwups. (I’m pretty sure Table 4 ended up with two beet salads in a row; enjoy the antioxidants, Table 4.) But finding a more competent staffer has thus eluded Brandon. He told me how he'd advertised an open position, only to have the sole promising candidate accept another job before the interview.
Restaurants all around him feel similar pain. The following week, fellow Capitol Hill restaurant Machiavelli closed on a Thursday night due to a staffing shortage. The next Monday, HoneyHole Sandwiches posted on Facebook that they’d close for the rest of the day due to the same issues; a sign went up at Poquitos. On Poached, a restaurant job listings site, Skillet advertises a $400 signing bonus for workers at their counter service locations. Pineapple Bistro and Bar promises a cool $2,000 for a bartender. Ads for food workers boast dental and vision insurance coverage, paid time off, even 401ks with employer contributions.
Where have all the restaurant workers gone? Some would to point to the appeal of extra unemployment benefits; Twitter users share photos of signs that declare “No one wants to work anymore.” But the extra $300 per week hardly covers the cost of a Seattle apartment.
“It's really a soup of things. It's not one reason,” says Anthony Anton, president and CEO of Washington Hospitality Association, calling it the worst worker shortage they’ve ever seen. Unemployment benefits can’t account for the 73,000-hospitality worker shortage in the state—only about 17,000 onetime service industry folks remain on the program. Anton suspects some workers decamped to the reliable hours of grocery jobs and that others left the state for places with fewer pandemic limitations. Boomer restaurant folk retired, and puny Generation X can’t make up the numbers.
My friend Brandon agrees: “People are thinking about whether they want this life.” The pandemic gave everyone time for contemplation, and the thrill of dining work comes yoked to late hours, physical labor, unpredictable scheduling. Two full decades and one half a pandemic have elapsed since Anthony Bourdain romanticized the freewheeling restaurant life in Kitchen Confidential.
“You're getting two to three applicants, and you set up interviews, and you're lucky if one shows up,” says Suzette Jarding, owner of Ristorante Machiavelli. “If you give them the job, you're lucky if they show up on the first day.” Her August closure came when she lost a kitchen staffer without notice. And it’s no local problem; she’s heard the same tale from restaurant owner friends in Ireland and at a Starbucks in South Dakota.
“It was an issue before the pandemic happened,” says Brandon Pettit, who owns Capitol Hill’s Dino’s Tomato Pie as well as Delancey in Ballard—to his eye, Covid just drove traffic to the existing exit ramps. Fewer young people work through college, he says, and restricted immigration shrank the pool of kitchen staffers. The artists and musicians that historically sling beers and wait tables between gigs? As Seattle got more expensive, the city stopped looking like a deal compared to New York and Los Angeles—might as well pay high rent in a legendary art scene, Pettit reasons. And for every former busboy that left the Emerald City, he says, a California tech worker making six figures moved in, primed to spend money in dining rooms, not earn it.
Pettit says his dishwasher makes $30 per hour now, plus health insurance—and he still can’t find applicants. “It's strange, it's not a money issue,” he says, at least not when it comes to hiring. Like many owners he’s raised prices and limited hours, but burnout still hovers over the whole staff like a storm cloud. “It’s a very scary, grim time.”
Ironically, the staffing constriction comes as dining out enjoys a post-pandemic boom. Weekdays at Bar Cotto resemble weekends of old, a Tuesday sometimes pulling in the same sales as a Before Times Saturday. Takeout was once a negligible extra, but when in-person dining shut down, Brandon threw together a $50 special of salad, pasta, pizza, and a bottle of wine (plus, in those chaotic spring days, a roll of toilet paper). Now he goes through so many to-go boxes that each shift begins with the ritual of folding cardboard; takeout and delivery account for almost a quarter of sales.
As my first shift as a fill-in wound to a close, Brandon made me a boulevardier while the last patrons lingered in a booth. Somehow simultaneously wired and exhausted, I asked about the big picture.
On September 4, the extra $300 per week to Washingtonians on unemployment ended. It’s unclear whether that will change staffing dynamics; Brandon isn’t convinced. “We just don’t know,” he said, lamenting the uncertainty wreaked by the Delta variant, the possibility of another constriction on indoor dining. The propane heaters he purchased last winter still line the front windows of Bar Cotto, waiting for the impending winter chill; Brandon is still searching for a full-time staffer.
And the next time I dine out, my mind will be on the perilous fragility of the Seattle dining ecosystem. And maybe on how the heck you fill a glass from a pitcher of ice water.