Several South Haven eateries have decided to limit their hours of operation at the busiest time of the year for the industry.
This month, Clementine’s restaurant in downtown South Haven became the latest eatery to cut back its hours due to a lack of workers. Now until Labor Day weekend, Clementine’s will be closed on Sundays.
It was a move that shocked not only restaurant patrons, but community officials.
“To see an iconic South Haven establishment such as Clementine’s having to implement temporary closures really gives a clear picture of the magnitude of this (worker shortage) crisis,” said Kathy Wagaman, executive director of the South Haven Area Chamber of Commerce.
Clementine’s management said they felt they had no other option.
“Since we are short-staffed almost every shift, the people who are working have an exceptionally heavy load,” said Sue Frederick, a manager at Clementine’s. “If normally we have eight people cooking on the line, we might have four or five, and so then they are doing the work of two people for the entire shift, including setting everything up in the morning and cleaning the whole kitchen after we close.”
Frederick added: “We are happy just to have the employees we do have. We are definitely paying them bonuses all summer long in appreciation of their hard work and the fact that they keep showing up, day after day, for a tough job.”
Throughout Michigan, dining establishments have suffered greatly since health restrictions to ban the spread of COVID-19 first took effect in March 2020. Earlier this spring, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services allowed restaurants to open their doors to indoor diners, but at a limited capacity.
Most restaurants in the South Haven area were able to keep up with the number of customers at that time. However, when capacity restrictions were lifted at the start of South Haven’s summer tourism season, a lack of staff forced a number of restaurants to cut their hours.
A few, like The Congregation, a new restaurant that opened last year in downtown South Haven, completely closed, citing an inability to attract workers.
Other eateries, like Maria’s A Taste of Italy, Gino’s East of Chicago, Six Chicks Scratch Kitchen and Big Boy, either reduced their hours or days of operation. The staffing shortage this summer has even affected most of South Haven’s fast-food establishments. Several still do not have enough workers to serve indoor and drive-thru customers.
It’s a community-wide dilemma not lost on Wagaman.
“For dining establishments, the ability to staff restaurants’ normal hours and meet the demands of a busy summer season has proven to be extremely challenging,” she said. “For some dining establishments, owners are forced to reduce hours, creating a greater demand on restaurants that are able to remain open.”
That increased customer demand hit Clementine’s hard, Frederick said.
When several downtown restaurants decided to close or limit hours during the beginning of the week, Clementine’s experienced an increase in diners. In part, that’s what led the popular eatery to close on Sundays.
“We chose Sundays to close because almost every other restaurant in town is open that day, but closed in some way on Monday, Tuesday and/or Wednesday,” Frederick said.
‘The demand is there’
Restaurants aren’t the only tourism-related businesses in South Haven suffering from a worker shortage this summer,
“It seems the consensus around town for business owners is that business is flourishing,” said Jen Sistrunk, executive director of the South Haven/Van Buren County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The demand is there, however, the staffing is not and that can be very frustrating to recovering business owners – especially during peak season where they make nearly 80 percent of their annual income.”
Chris Campbell, who owns Emma’s Boutique, SoHa Surf Shop, The Shoe Collective and SoHa Kayak and Paddleboards, admitted he had difficulty this spring finding workers, but has since been able to fill empty positions.
“At first, we were able to bring our number of employees from seven to 18. But for three stores and three rental locations, we need at least 22 to run all (the) locations,” Campbell said. “So in late May, early June, everyone was working locations ... But once June hit, we were able to increase to around 26 employees.”
Other businesses, have not had similar success.
“Almost every one of our employees returned to work after the COVID restrictions were listed, but we have been totally unable to hire any new people,” Frederick said. “We normally would have an extra eight to 10 extra kitchen staff – often students that just want to work for the summer.”
Some argue the extension of unemployment benefits has led to some people deciding not to return to the workforce.
Frederick said she’s not so sure at this point.
“We aren’t seeing that the extra unemployment money is making a huge difference in staffing, but I guess we’ll see how much that changes when the $300 additional money stops in September,” she said.