Restaurants return to normal hours despite labor shortage |

Restaurants return to normal hours despite labor shortage

Steamboat establishments prepare for busy winter season

Server Chris Stackpole delivers drinks to a table at Big House Burgers. Restaurants across Steamboat Springs are handling staffing shortages in various ways with the busy winter tourism season upon them.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

This week’s snow and the arrival of more airplanes at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport have most Steamboat Springs business owners looking forward to a big winter.

Local restaurant owner Rex Brice is among them, but he isn’t expecting it to be like the winters of old.

“I think we are living in a new world, and we all need to learn how to adapt to that and make it work for us long term,” said Brice, who owns seven local restaurants including Rex’s American Grill and Bar, Big House Burgers, Creekside Cafe, The Laundry Kitchen and Cocktails, Salt & Lime and Lil’ House County Biscuits and Coffee.

“We are settling into what potentially will be some long-term changes in our industry,” he added.

Brice said finding employees to cook and serve customers at his restaurants has been one of his biggest challenges in the wake of the pandemic that closed his establishments in March 2020.

The COVID-19 restrictions had all been lifted by the start of the summer tourism season, but restaurants were dealing with a new problem, as their employees were slow to return.

“All the restaurants worked at a limited capacity over the summer, and for each restaurant, we identified how it made the most sense for that restaurant to operate in a limited capacity,” Brice said. “For instance, at Rex’s where we are attached to the hotel and needed to be open breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, we reduced the number of sections that we had … whereas at the Laundry we closed two days and at Big House we reduced capacity two days a week.”

Brice said he felt a reduction would be better than running his restaurants at full capacity and potentially overwhelming the staff he had on payroll. He doesn’t want them feeling burnt out.

Other business owners have had to implement new operating procedures to cope with staffing issues as well.

“As a general trend, there isn’t any real consistency,” said Nick Sharp president of the Steamboat Springs Restaurant Association. “Some businesses are feeling understaffed still, and some are not. The one consistent thing that I have heard, have witnessed and managed myself is that a lot of staff is new.”

Brice said that because he has a group of restaurants with a dedicated management staff handling day-to-day tasks, he has been able to adjust and expand most of his restaurants to get back to seven days a week this winter.

However, he said that also marks a significant change from the way the restaurant industry used to run.

“When I got into this business that was the way, in particular, fine dining restaurants operated: Everybody closed two days a week or at least one day a week so that people got a day off,” Brice said. “The demands of the consumer and the business changed, and restaurants went to seven days a week, and maybe (the staffing shortage) is a catalyst that causes restaurants to go back to that five-day week schedule.”

Meanwhile, Sharp said there have been many different approaches to the labor shortage at Steamboat establishments.

“We’ve all adapted our daily plan, our service plans to help account for that a little bit,” Sharp said. “We’ve had a little bit more time to turn the gears and to land and train some new employees.

“I think the industry is still understaffed in Steamboat, and I would hesitate to say that it’s not, but some restaurants are doing better, and some companies are seeing better numbers than they had over the summertime, and they are optimistic about how the winter is going to go.”

Seann Conway, who co-owns the Ore House at the Pine Grove and Freshies Restaurant in Steamboat Springs, as well as the Grouse Mountain Grill in Beaver Creek, is happy to say he is almost fully staffed going into the winter.

As a result, the Ore House will be open for dinner, and Freshies will be open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week.

“We’re fortunate,” Conway said. “Everything has returned and for us is back to normal at all locations.”

The expanded hours are not the only thing to return to the Ore House this winter either. After having the popular salad bar closed for 626 days, it is now open again too.

“We have taken protocols and protections to make sure it’s a safe environment for people to enjoy, and for those that do not wish not to go to the salad bar, there are still plated salads available if they don’t want to be in that environment,” Conway said.

While Brice, Conway and Sharp are all excited about getting back to a more normal workflow after COVID-19, all three agree the pandemic has resulted in changes that will last long into the future.

“I think a lot of people didn’t necessarily even notice the changes,” Brice said. “They did not necessarily put two and two together, as to why there were fewer tables in a dining room, or that a dining room wasn’t open, or that we were closed two days a week. I think some people got it and were accepting of it, and some people didn’t even realize what was going on.”

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