Rebuild: Post-fire staffing woes, rising rents and higher food costs challenge Sonoma County restaurants
Behind the welcoming smiles and artistic plates of hand-foraged winter mushroom ragu, Sonoma County restaurateurs are deeply worried. With fallout from natural disasters shrinking their workforce, a housing crisis and fewer customers to feed, it’s been a challenging 18 months since the October 2017 wildfires.
Chef and owner Shawn Hall of Sebastopol’s Gypsy Cafe said she’s always had a bustling breakfast, brunch and lunch crowd in her cozy downtown cafe. As she surveys the room, with about three-quarters of the tables occupied on a recent weekday, she said the crowd is actually smaller than usual.
“It’s so difficult in this industry. I don’t know if we can survive. I mean, the flu season is scary to me now because we don’t have enough staff if people get sick,” she said.
Already at least three food purveyors in Sonoma County have blamed their closures on the fires, including Two Tread Brewing in downtown Santa Rosa, SHED in Healdsburg and Rechere du Plaisir chocolates. Owners said loss of customers, staffing problems and fewer tourists were a triple hit to their businesses. Other restaurant owners interviewed for this story say, although tourism and local customer visits mostly have recovered, potentially crippling staffing and cost-of-living issues persist.
Sonoma County’s population shrank by more than 3,300 people between July 2017 and July 2018, according to state figures. After years of steady growth, the shrinking population is concerning for business owners. The numbers show only the tip of what could be a growing exodus of lower- and middle-income workers who are the backbone of the restaurant industry.
Compounding the problem, rents on even modest houses and apartments have risen so sharply that it is difficult for anyone making less than the median income of $72,000 to afford housing. Most restaurant workers earn between $11 and $20 an hour, with the sweet spot around $17, or $33,150 a year.
Though no official figures yet exist, anecdotal information shows Sonoma County’s eligible hospitality workforce has contracted so severely that restaurateurs are doing just about anything they can to keep existing staff.
“They’ve lost housing. Coffey Park was the center of our service crowd,” Hall said.
Before the fires, the Santa Rosa neighborhood was one of the more affordable places for renters and middle-income families. With rents jumping thousands of dollars, hospitality workers are finding themselves priced out of their old neighborhoods.
Hall said she is paying dishwashers $17 hourly and $30 to $35 for line cooks who typically get paid about $20 an hour.
“I do it to keep them here. They’re staying because I give them extra perks,” she said. “We’ve never had to think this way. I used to put an ad out and dozens of people would show up. Now I might get one.”
Miriam Donaldson of Petaluma’s Wishbone restaurant has jokingly posted offers of $1 million for a dishwasher, explaining how difficult it has been to find and keep staff, mostly in lower-paying jobs.
“My biggest issue has been staff not being able to afford housing. There are still customers, but there are few and fewer talented cooks because people are having to move to pursue their careers,” Donaldson said.
Without staff, restaurants face operating limited hours or shutting down altogether.
Ironically, during the fires, many restaurants donated thousands of dollars and many hours to feeding fire survivors and first responders.
John Franchetti, whose namesake restaurant was a hub for feeding fire survivors in 2017, said his restaurant has been on a roller coaster ride with staffing challenges, rising rent, food cost increases and customer ebbs and flows.
“We had a staff member leave in October because he couldn’t afford rent. I’ve put ads out and I get a lot of responses, and then people just don’t show up for the interview. Or, they show up and I hire them and then they don’t show up,” he said.
Franchetti is taking a different approach to the problem. To offset costs, John and his wife, Gesine, work the day shift in the kitchen. They’re also updating the restaurant interior and offering a new menu that reflects his Italian heritage and Gesine’s German background. The restaurant will be rebranded as Franchetti’s Gasthaus.
“We need to reinvent ourselves to get people to come in,” he said.
Restaurant Week in early March was a boom for him, but since then business has been lackluster.
“We aren’t seeing the numbers we’ve seen in the past,” Franchetti said. The floods just happened and got people worried. Its tax season with all new tax laws. People are concerned about money, but how many excuses can I make?”