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'We are hoping some miracle will happen' | 757 business owners struggle to hire staff as the summer season nears

Diners across the 757 are back in full force. That should be exciting news for business owners. Instead, it’s stressful, as many struggle to hire staff.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Restrictions are lifting, vaccines are flowing and diners across the 757 are back in full force.

That should be exciting news for business owners. Instead, it’s stressful, as many struggle to hire staff.

Pelon’s Baja Grill owner John Muscara was forced to close all three locations on Mondays and Tuesdays because he can’t find enough help.

“We can only put our employees through so much work,” Muscara said. “We want them to have a comfortable lifestyle.”

He needs 12 more sets of hands at his Oceanfront spot alone. But the applicant pool is thin!

“We will get several dozens of applications every week,” Muscara said. “When we try to call and schedule interviews, no one shows up.”

That worries him, with the summer tourist season already heating up.

“Memorial Day, we double our volume,” Muscara said. “So, there is a line out the door.”

Over the last 28 days, officials with the Virginia Beach Convention Center and Visitors Bureau report the Virginia Beach hotel occupancy rate nearly doubled to 60 percent, compared to this time last year. They said the revenue has almost tripled to $21 million. CVB gets the data from Smith Travel Research.

Staffing shortages are all across the 757.

Omar Boukhriss owns Omar’s Carriage House in Norfolk. Recently, he’s been waiting tables.

“I have to go back to the roots where I started,” Boukhriss said. “It doesn’t scare me, but after 23 years you would think that you wouldn’t be in that situation.”

He’s also dealt with applicant no-shows and his restaurant hours have been cut way back as a result.

“Right now, we are literally to the bare minimum,” Boukhriss said. “Even with that, we are barely managing.”

The minimum wage rises in May and both owners said they already offer competitive pay.

“We try to offer different incentives to people that want to come on board right now,” Boukhriss said.

“We are starting anywhere from $15 to $17 in the kitchen,” Muscara said. “Our front house people make minimum wage plus gratuities. They average anywhere from $150 to $200 a day in tips.”

Muscara thinks a combination of COVID safety fears and unemployment benefits are keeping workers away.

“A lot of people that used to work for us last year, we want them to come back, but they won’t come back,” Muscara said.

Each owner said something has got to give.

“Usually we are open until midnight in the summer hours,” Muscara said. “Now we will have to continue closing at 9.”

Or more cuts and closures are on the way.

“We are hoping some miracle will happen,” Boukhriss said.

Two weeks ago, the Virginia Unemployment Commission reinstated the requirement that people who file for benefits must apply for at least two jobs a week to qualify for payments. So far restaurant owners tell us it’s not helping.