Restaurant Employment Surges in Arkansas


Employment in the restaurant industry in Arkansas has finally exceeded pre-pandemic levels, though that’s not yet the case nationwide.

In 2019, the pre-pandemic year, average annual employment in restaurants and bars in Arkansas stood at 97,346. In 2022, that number was 98,471. 

Nationwide, the industry employed about 12.34 million people in February 2020, right before COVID-19 hit the United States, compared with 12.27 million in July 2023, according to the National Restaurant Association. 

This July in Arkansas, employment in food services hit 106,100 workers, compared with 98,300 in July 2022, according to the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services. Of course, restaurant work tends to be seasonal, with the summer months generally seeing the highest restaurant employment. 

“It’s very exciting to see the industry bounce back from the devastating impacts of the pandemic and to see the industry now surpassing the pre-pandemic record job numbers,” said Katie Beck, the CEO of the Arkansas Hospitality Association. 

Source: Arkansas Division of Workforce Services
Source: Arkansas Division of Workforce Services

“But the No. 1 issue that I hear from our members throughout the state, from hospitality and tourism businesses throughout the state, is the staffing shortage,” she said. “So while it’s so exciting and it shows so much growth and potential for the future of the industry, it is still a big challenge right now.”

David Alan Bubbus (who goes by Alan), founder of mini-chain David’s Burgers, echoed Beck. “That’s still our No. 1 focus, recruitment of personnel,” he said. “Talent acquisition, training that staff and making sure we adequately challenge, promote that personnel is really my job. That’s the key part of my focus as an owner.” 

Even in 2021, long after state government restrictions on bars and restaurants had ended, COVID-19 vaccines became available and the pandemic had abated, the David’s Burgers restaurant in the River Market in downtown Little Rock was closed for several months, despite renewed customer traffic, because of staffing shortages.

Now, however, “the labor has come back,” Bubbus said. “I think it’s much better than it’s been, even pre-pandemic.” He added: “We may be an outlier for that. I don’t know that every restaurant is feeling that. We’ve worked really hard for our reputation in the community. We want to be a safe place for parents to let their kids work at our stores.”

Beck noted that restaurant employment numbers had grown every month since the beginning of this year and that the hospitality industry is the second-largest industry in Arkansas. “It’s vital to the state’s economy and to see it in this strong position right now is great news for the industry but also for the entire state overall.”