RED BAY | Shortly before noon on Monday, Deniece Glover answered a phone call in her small office inside Cardinal Drive-In in Red Bay. Normally Glover might be too busy to take a phone call at that time. Normally her business would be running full speed, serving lunchtime orders.
Not today. Not for the past several weeks. Every stall outside is empty. Inside, only one employee, Jasimine Morris, is at work, cutting and preparing coleslaw to be served once the restaurant can open later in the afternoon. Instead of taking an order, Glover had to do something she has found herself having to do all too often lately: She had to tell the customer she could not take their order, that the business does not open until 4 p.m.
It’s not that Glover doesn’t want to open her business to those looking for lunch; she can’t. There are not enough workers, able or willing, to staff the restaurant to operate at full capacity.
And it’s weighing heavily on Glover. The Cardinal isn’t just a business for her; it’s personal.
A problem everywhere
Down the road at Subway, the problem is not quite as bad, but the employment situation is similar. While that restaurant has been able to stay open at lunch, the lack of a complete employee roster has left the business no choice but to close early, at 8 p.m., has led to longer wait times for orders – and has led to a loss of business as customers grow tired of waiting.
“We have just enough employees right now, but if someone calls out or someone gets sick it’s a problem,” said Lee Barnett, a shift leader at Subway in Red Bay who works out of multiple locations for the franchise owner. “Right now, we’re mostly getting students who can only work short hours or can’t work days.”
Brandon Kohliem, manager-in-training for the Red Bay store, said the staffing situation is one that can wear down good employees. Employee retention and turnover are also affected when a crew is stretched thin.
“We’re having to train them to work faster and harder than they normally would,” Kohliem said.
Barnett said the problems are all around, citing examples of other stores in the region having to close dining rooms or completely shut down during regular operating hours because they do not have enough employees to meet customer demand. Indeed, there has been widespread discussion around social media and in the news that the recent stimulus check distribution in the United States has played a role in people’s willingness to work. While studies are ongoing around the country to see if expanded unemployment benefits are to blame, Barnett sees something from her real-world experience that may portend a bigger problem.
“Can I really say what I think?” Barnett asked. “Honestly, I really think a lot of it is just laziness and lack of work ethic. There is an attitude of, ‘the store needs me more than I need the store.’”
She’s not alone in that assessment.
Glover said she has been getting applications and has even made some hires for daytime help – to no avail.
“I have hired three people to work that could work,” Glover said. “One of them worked one time and never came back. The second one did the same thing. She worked one day for three hours and never came back – and these are adults that I’m talking about, adults. And then I had a 50-year-old woman that called me wanting a job. So, I gave her a job. I hired her on Friday, and I said, ‘I think we’re going to have to be closed Saturday and you’ll start Monday,’ and she said okay. I called her at one o’clock that Monday to make sure she was still showing up. ‘Yeah, I’ll be there. I’ll see you at 4:00.’ I never heard another word from her.”
Wages start at $7.25 per hour for carhops at Cardinal and go up from there for other positions, with Glover giving raises as her budget allows. Subway’s wages are a bit higher, but similar. Tight margins in the food business do not allow for higher wages, especially when operating hours are having to be cut and food costs continue to escalate. Glover cited the increasing pressures of food costs but said there was little she could do to overcome it. Glover said the cost alone to change out order signs on each car bay would easily run into thousands of dollars if she raised her prices every time food costs went up.
Customer response has been about the same for both Subway and Cardinal, with both businesses reporting frustration from customers tempered with understanding.
“Most customers are very understanding,” Barnett said. “But I have noticed at lunch if they’re lined up to the door, I have seen people walk away because they don’t have the time to wait.”
For Glover, the challenges have been even greater. When last year’s COVID-19 shutdowns hit her business skyrocketed as people turned to take-out meals. That was a double-edged sword, though, because that additional revenue then is keeping her from being able to apply for badly needed Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding from the Small Business Administration when she needs it the most. Second-round funding requires a business to have experienced at least a 25 percent loss in any given quarter in 2020 to qualify.
Now, Glover is biding her time with an eye toward school being out for the summer. She’s hopeful to get enough applicants and get them trained to be able to reopen regular hours then. Until then revenues will continue to be dragged down by the lack of full operating hours.
“It’s stressful. It’s very stressful because I’m sitting here and not everybody is in my shoes. I’ve got all this on me,” Glover said. “I don’t have a husband. I don’t have a son anymore to help me. I have all this pressure on me to try to make this operation keep on working and people do not want me to have to close down. I don’t want to have to do that. Believe me, because I want to have something to do and plus the fact this place is very special to me. It’s a family-owned business and nobody’s owned it but us.”