At 4 p.m. or so every day that Bruno’s Little Italy is scheduled to be open, the Bruno family has to make a call: Do we have enough staff to serve customers?
For two weeks last November, the whole month of February 2021 and then for two or three days several times since then, the decision has been no, and the legendary Little Rock restaurant, at 310 Main St., has had to shut down.
The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, is behind the worker shortage and the reason for Bruno’s sudden closures when an employee has tested positive for the virus that causes the disease. Posts on the restaurant’s Facebook page have sought to alert potential diners, but not everyone gets the message. “Bruno’s would like to apologize for the confusion of last weekend,” began one post on Aug. 31.
It’s a big problem, Gio Bruno, co-owner of Bruno’s, told me.
The struggle to find and retain workers remains a big problem throughout the U.S. restaurant industry in the face of the surge of illnesses caused by the highly contagious delta variant and despite the widespread and months-long availability of vaccines to prevent COVID. Three out of four restaurant and food service operators said recruiting and retaining workers was the No. 1 challenge facing their business, the National Restaurant Association said in its midyear update on the state of the industry.
At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, many restaurants shut down completely, laying off millions of workers.
Bruno’s remained open, shifting, as many eateries did, to a curbside-only business and so also laid off a number of employees.
“I think a lot of the people got out of the service industry so they wouldn’t have to have contact with other humans and they found good jobs that were safer for them,” Bruno said. “And some of those jobs had benefits, and I don’t think a lot of those people will be returning to the service industry.”
Now, 19 months into the health crisis, “we’ve got three major things hitting the restaurant business right now,” Bruno said. First is “the continuing pandemic, which everybody pretends is gone.”
No. 2 is “the short staffing — finding people, and quality candidates, is incredibly difficult. I feel like half my employees are in training all the time.”
Finally, there are the supply chain issues. “The stuff that we thought was going to hit us last year has hit us hard this year,” he said.
“Those three things have just about put us under several times,” Bruno said.
And that would be a tragedy for people who love Italian food and Arkansas history. The restaurant, one of the best-known in the state, has been in business since 1949 and rates an entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History. Its presence on Main Street in downtown Little Rock helped anchor the revitalization of the area.
It’s not just employees testing positive for the virus and necessitating quarantine, Bruno said, “people are even worse about calling in to let you know they’re going to be sick, so you never know for sure what boots you’ve got on the ground.”
And with the worker shortage, employees “have a little bit of power over you because if you get rid of them, they’re hard to replace,” he said.
Although minimum wage in Arkansas is $11 an hour, workers in entry-level positions like dishwashers and bussers now expect $12-$14 an hour, Bruno said, “and they get upset that I’m offering minimum for a minimum wage position.”
He thinks that blaming enhanced unemployment benefits for the labor shortage is “a real easy way for people to give an excuse, and those people usually have a bent against unemployment, which I don’t.” And he noted that those increased benefits expired during the summer.
Bruno said the last few weeks have brought good news, however, with word that a couple of former employees have moved back to town and want to return to Bruno’s. He’s hoping he’ll soon have a full staff to open with.
The restaurant gave its about 30 employees until Oct. 26 to get vaccinated, and as of last week, Bruno said, only three had not been. Two of those will be leaving before the deadline, and one is still considering the vaccination.
Most customers have been understanding about the restaurant’s difficulties, he said. “Very, very, very, very rarely do we have a customer leave that is not happy. My brother Vince will do anything to make them happy. And that’s what you have to do. We’ve always been that way.”