Restaurant Woes

Restaurants are reeling from low unemployment rates, high housing costs, and the increasing cost of doing business.



Sal Bednarz said he felt like he was constantly training a new employee for the same position.

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

The days and weeks before Christmas were bittersweet for Sal Bednarz. It wasn’t just holiday hubbub or the final migration of a lame-duck president. Bednarz had recently announced he would close Actual Café and its counterpart Victory Burger. After seven years in business, it was time to pull the plug.

On one hand, it was unwelcome. Bednarz took pride in his local coffee, honest food, and friendly vibes. In the age of the freelance tech worker, he created a space that mirrored those of the Bay Area a generation before—the ones who convinced him to stay in Oakland. But on the other, closing was a relief.

After five successful years, profits fell sharply. The business had been hemorrhaging since 2015. During the final year, it felt like he was constantly training a new employee for the same position, over and over again. “Everybody is always hiring,” Bednarz said. “That’s one of the things that people miss: You walk into a restaurant and something is wrong with the food or the service, and you’re like, ‘What the hell are these guys doing? Don’t they know how?’

“Yeah, we know how, but the reality is that we’re reliant on dozens of people who don’t necessarily know how, and we can’t get better ones.”

This comes at time when Oakland’s unemployment rate has dipped to its lowest mark in 16 years. Low unemployment is taking a toll on one of the city’s most prominent industries—local restaurants. Finding reliable workers, in particular, is harder than ever.

Emily Goldenberg, who co-owns Caffe 817, said job openings that once yielded as many as 100 applicants now elicit but a trickling stream of lightly qualified candidates. Goldenberg noticed this shift in 2015, after the minimum wage was raised to $12.55.

“It was a strange coincidence,” said Goldenberg, who co-owns Caffe 817 with her husband, Scott. “When they raised the minimum wage, there was this simultaneous decrease in the amount of qualified workers.”

Although the higher wage has raised the cost of doing business for restaurants, it has failed to attract more workers to the industry. Restaurant owners say the cost of living in Oakland and the rest of the Bay Area is just too high for food-service workers. Goldenberg said many of her best employees have begrudgingly packed up and left the area.

Javier Morales, 30, was put in a similar situation. He was a line cook at B&B Kitchen and Wine Bar until this fall, when he moved from the Bay Area altogether. He had worked in local kitchens for more than a decade. When it came time to look for a new apartment last summer, he was greeted by sky high costs.

“I couldn’t believe how much the prices went up in like two years,” Morales said. His full-time sous chef wages weren’t even close to enough to afford a rental for him plus his wife and two kids. “We couldn’t find anything.”

Not long ago, Goldenberg was struck by the phraseology of a friend: “As a small business owner, every day has to be thought through. Every day is a lesson in urgency.” While she understands that politics often move at a glacial pace, she can’t help but wish the city could inhabit business owners’ sense of urgency.

Restaurant owners know there’s only so much that can be done to better their fortunes. But in 2015, after the minimum wage increase and a dust-up over Oakland’s city garbage contract, Bednarz and others—including Goldenberg—formed the Oakland Indie Alliance, a 70-member collective of local restaurants aimed uniting their disparate voices into a chorus.

Vice Mayor Annie Campbell-Washington was the first politician to listen. At her urging, the council appointed a Small Business Task Force. Bednarz was asked to represent restaurant interests. Over the last several months, the team collected information from business owners all over Oakland. In Late January, the task force presented several ideas for helping businesses directly to Mayor Libby Schaaf.

They proposed refurbishing the Business Assistance Center, a data collection initiative, and a PR campaign in support of local business. The last, and most important, recommendation was the creation of a Small Business Commission, a body in the city government itself.

It’s unclear what, if anything, will come of the task force. 

 

Published online on March 1, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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