Wood and Wood

Co-owners of 21 Bar and Grill Beth Wood and Matt Wood say they’d expand the hours of their Keene bar, seen here Wednesday, if they could find more staff.

Beth Wood wants to expand business hours at 21 Bar & Grill, the downtown Keene restaurant she owns with her husband, Matt, but right now they just don’t have enough staff members to cover the additional shifts.

“We’ve had signs up at our establishment, we’ve posted on social media that we’re looking for help,” Wood said. “and I think we’ve gotten one application in the six weeks we’ve been hiring.”

The eatery at 21 Roxbury St. currently employs 16 people and is open Monday through Thursday from 3 to 11 p.m., Fridays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Ideally, Wood said, the business would add at least three or four more staff members to be able to open for lunch on Wednesdays and Thursdays and remain open until 11 p.m. on Sundays.

“We also want to make sure we’re not overworking the staff we have,” Wood said, adding that 21 prides itself on offering a living wage, starting at $15 to $19 an hour.

And as a busy summer season begins for local bars and restaurants, 21 is far from alone in its hiring challenges. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Bantam Grill in Peterborough was open for lunch and dinner, owner Harris Welden said.

“We still haven’t been able to open for lunch, not because we’re not busy enough but because we’re lacking staff,” he said. “So that’s pretty substantial.”

Welden, who also owns Pearl Restaurant & Oyster Bar in the same plaza on Jaffrey Road, said he typically employs about 50 people between the two restaurants. Right now, they have about 45 staff members, some of whom worked for Welden years ago and have to come back on a part-time basis to help out, he said.

“I could use about four more full-time employees to fill out,” he said, adding that he offers starting wages of $12 an hour for a dishwasher and $16 for a cook. “... The customers are there. And the summer, I think, is going to be crazy, which is why the staff is so important.”

Beyond the Monadnock Region, restaurants statewide are also struggling to find sufficient staff levels to operate at full capacity as COVID-19 restrictions continue to lift, according to Mike Somers, president and CEO of the N.H. Lodging & Restaurant Association.

“They’re having a devil of a time to find enough workers to cover the shifts they need as they get into the summer,” Somers said of restaurants throughout the state.

The NHLRA does not have specific statistics on the restaurant industry labor shortage, Somers said, adding that, “We know that there are thousands of jobs open right now, and we know there are lots of things compounding that.”

For instance, he said, many visa applications have been stalled, preventing temporary international workers from coming for the summer. For domestic workers, Somers said, some are struggling to find affordable and reliable child care that would allow them to return to work, and other people who used to work part time in restaurants may still be uncomfortable returning to work due to health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s a whole raft of reasons that have come together to create kind of a perfect storm right now,” Somers said.

Supplemental federal unemployment benefits, which have provided out-of-work people with an additional $300 a week during the pandemic, may also be playing a role, Somers said. Gov. Chris Sununu announced last month that this extra unemployment benefit will end in New Hampshire on June 19, a move he said is designed to bring more Granite Staters back to work.

But Somers said other factors — like a lack of transportation, or immunocompromised people still uncomfortable working in a restaurant — likely will continue to keep people from returning to work.

“It may be a small part of it for some people, but I don’t think it’s the silver bullet that we’re hoping it is,” Somers said of the decision to end the supplemental unemployment benefit. “... I think there will be some movement, but I don’t know if it will be enough to meet the demand, to be perfectly honest.”

But Shanda Donovan, who along with her husband, Steve, owns Spencer’s Place in Walpole, said they’ve had three job applicants in the past week, which she believes is due at least partly to Sununu’s actions.

“I’ve had more people apply in the last week than in the last two months. ... So it was nice to know that the governor has given them an incentive to get back to work,” Donovan said, citing the $500 or $1,000 bonuses Sununu said the state will offer to anyone who gets off unemployment and keeps a job for at least eight weeks.

Despite these hiring challenges — which restaurant owners acknowledge extend beyond their industry and impact nearly every sector of the economy — local proprietors say they’re still hopeful for a busy and profitable summer.

“I’m hoping with the schools getting out soon, we’ll get some more hours from our high school seniors or high schoolers who work for us,” said Gail Somers, owner of Yahso Jamaican Grille in downtown Keene. “And I’m really hoping as the pandemic gets behind us and more people get vaccinated … that we’ll see some more job applicants come out, as well.”

And for Welden, the Peterborough restaurateur, this optimism extends into his businesses overall as they head into the summer.

“I do feel like there is a sense of general positivity in the community right now, and it feels good,” he said. “And despite the challenges, I’m excited about what’s going on, and that things are more or less getting back to normal.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.