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Starks restaurant group in Sonoma County hosts party and lottery to coax workers to get COVID-19 shots

Hundreds of employees from seven Stark Reality restaurants joined owners Mark and Terri Stark at Santa Rosa's Cloverleaf Ranch on Wednesday, hoping to be one of 21 lucky winners of gift cards worth $1,000 each, just for getting vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Helping themselves to free food and beer while a live band played on the horse ranch's campgrounds, the celebration and raffle helped the area restaurant group reach a 90% vaccination rate among their staff of 475 employees, up from 85% a month ago.

In late July as an incentive to get all of their workers inoculated, the Starks announced the $21,000 giveaway. They donated three gift cards for employees at each of their seven restaurants.

The Starks own: Stark's Steakhouse and Seafood; Willi's Wine Bar; Willi's Seafood; Monti's; Bird and the Bottle; Grossman's Noshery; and Bravas.

The raffle is part of a growing movement of public and private businesses in Sonoma County strongly encouraging, rather than mandating employee vaccinations as the summer’s COVID-19 surge lingers. Also, certain employers, including the county government, are making inoculations a condition of employment or as an alternative weekly virus testing.

“This is to celebrate people doing the right thing,” said Terri Stark, sitting at a picnic table on the open field as employees gathered. Proof of vaccination was required to attend the company event.

“People have to understand, it's not just about them,” she said. “We are in an industry that we have no control over what others do. We have to protect our restaurant family and have a safe working environment. It's the one thing we have control over.”

Throughout the country, restaurants are facing a critical shortage of workers. Some have temporarily moved during the pandemic to better-paying industries like construction, while others have chosen to continue their education or change careers entirely.

A recent Joblist survey of 30,000 job seekers found that 60% had no interest in hospitality jobs due primarily to undesirable working conditions and low pay. The survey also found that most people still would not be willing to work in a restaurant, bar or hotel even with wage increases or other benefits.

Locally, restaurants have even resorted to closing on certain days, because of the staffing crunch.

Though the Starks have not yet reached their goal of 100% of the team getting fully vaccinated, Terri Stark said that she's happy only 52 of their employees have chosen not to be vaccinated, or have medical or religious exemptions.

Despite layoffs during the worst of the pandemic, the Starks have retained a large share of their former staff and hired several hundred others during the ongoing tight job market. Protecting employees from sick co-workers has been a priority.

Ten-year veteran employee Laura Larsen said the potential to win $1,000 for getting inoculated was nice, but she'd already decided to get her COVID-19 shots to protect younger family members ineligible for vaccinations.

“I'm on the front lines, and I'm healthy, but I felt better for me to take this responsibility,” Larsen said. “I get everyone's point of view, but I just don't believe in conspiracy theories. I believe in science.”

Kate Graham, who works at Bird and the Bottle, said she's hoping to win one of the $1,000 gift cards to put aside for Christmas shopping.

For her, it was important not to bring the highly contagious virus home to her family, including two small children, after working close to the public.

“Before the vaccine, I worried all the time,” Graham said. “I encounter hundreds of people every day. I don't know their status. As soon as the Starks made it possible for us to get vaccinated, I said ‘Sign me up.’”

Earlier this year as the vaccines became widely available to local residents, the restaurant group helped employees find sites to get their shots and gave them time off to do that.

Rewarding employees for getting vaccinated, Stark said, is part of providing them with the tools they need to be successful at work, and it serves as a strong way to retain them.

“If we have a safe environment to work, that incentivizes people,” she said. “Herd immunity (to the coronavirus) is not happening, if there's a selfish mindset. I don't believe this is a personal choice.”

As for the remaining unvaccinated staff members, Stark hopes to open a dialogue about their decisions and encourage them to get inoculated, if possible. Reaching 100%, she said, would truly be a reason to celebrate.

Wednesday’s celebration and the raffle came with a pricey tab for the Starks because they closed all the restaurants for the day to encourage employees to attend. Therefore, they likely left more than $120,000 in sales on the table, plus the company party, the first since 2018, cost them about $20,000.

“This is just something we had to do. We're almost across the line, and we're committed,” Terri Stark said. “I certainly wouldn't want to work alongside someone in a small kitchen who wasn’t vaccinated.”

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