Restaurants throughout the southern Midcoast are reporting a hiring shortage as businesses try to bolster their workforce for the looming summer tourist season.

Brunswick Downtown Association Executive Director Deb King reported many local restaurants are having issues finding the staff they need, and some have been forced to cut their hours.

Cook’s Lobster and Ale House, a seasonal restaurant in Harpswell, was forced to close its food truck, Cook’s Takes Flight stationed at Brunswick Landing, for the summer due to a staffing shortage, according to owner Jennifer Charboneau.

“We have also made the difficult decision to shut down the restaurant for two days a week to allow our small kitchen staff two days off a week,” said Charboneau.

While Charboneau said she has enough waitstaff, she’s hoping to hire five more back-of-house employees, but said even one more would help reduce stress for her current workers. She recognizes she’s not the only restaurant owner looking for help.

“Hundreds of restaurants are struggling to find kitchen help these days,” she said. “We are all looking to hire the same few people that are willing and want to work in this industry. We are competing with each other and it just inflates our hourly rate of pay to make ourselves look more attractive to the few people looking.”

Maine’s unemployment rate hovered at 4.8% as of March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, sitting below the national unemployment rate of 6%.

King said that lower unemployment rate may indicate “everyone who wants to find work already has.”

Some business owners, such as Bruno’s Pizzeria owner Robert Whisenant, suspect some people would rather continue collecting unemployment benefits if it’s equal to or above what they’d be paid in a restaurant position.

“During this COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve had to give raises more frequently than desired for retention and rewards,” said Whisenant. “I had employees who chose to work 50 hours a week while they saw their friends making more money than them doing nothing.”

The pandemic prompted expanded federal unemployment bonuses, including an extra $300 each week in addition to state aid for anyone who was unemployed due to the pandemic.

The additional unemployment benefits, combined with the widespread need for help, forced some owners to increase hourly wage rates to attract prospective employees. Whisenant warned this combination “created a false pretense of what pay is in the workforce for a particular job,” and is a financial burden during an already tough time for the restaurant industry.

Michael Gilroy, founder of Frontier, a Brunswick restaurant, café, cinema and gallery, said the shortage of employees is “worse now more than ever.”

“We’ve seen three applications since the beginning of 2021, and most of our 70 staff from the ‘before times’ have moved on to other careers or have needed to reinvent their lives in response to the pandemic,” Gilroy told The Times Record. “The impact is tremendous, especially given the uncertain circumstances.”

Gilroy said he recognizes there is growing demand for the services Frontier provides, but the lack of manpower he’s dealing with cuts into potential profits.

“We honestly don’t believe we can adequately staff the operation as it once was, without either burning out a small staff and/or providing a sub-optimal experience,” Gilroy wrote. “With this in mind, we are working now on transitioning the business into something that can be viable and sustainable and continues to support our mission of connecting people to the world.”

While Bath Brewing Company in downtown Bath has plenty of waitstaff, the restaurant has been searching for four cooks since it reopened in March, said owner Mike Therriault.

“It’s a little frustrating because we know things are going to pick up,” said Therriault, adding that he’s unsure whether he’ll have enough staff to match demand.

Bath Brewing Company head chef Steve Ono said the restaurant is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, and he’d like to expand to offer lunch as well, but he doesn’t yet have enough cooks to make that possible.

Though staffing continues to be a challenge for restaurants, Main Street Bath Executive Director Amanda McDaniel said new employees are needed because the restaurant industry is thriving, a welcome change after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to close for months.

“Restaurants need the extra help because people are getting vaccinated and they’re getting out,” said McDaniel. “The numbers are strong and restaurants are healthy, but they need help to stay healthy.”

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