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As Phoenix Restaurants Reopen, Owners Struggle to Hire Staff

Rusconi's American Kitchen is now open for takeout, but a dine-in date has not yet been determined.EXPAND
Rusconi's American Kitchen is now open for takeout, but a dine-in date has not yet been determined.
Rusconi's American Kitchen

Michael Rusconi made the difficult decision to let all of his employees go when he shuttered Rusconi’s American Kitchen during Arizona’s restaurant shutdown, intending to hire them back when reopening was possible. Rehiring them, though, has proven to be difficult.

Some of his Phoenix restaurant’s employees have found other work during this time and will only come back part time. The chef and owner has not been able to get a hold of others, like all of his dishwashers. Rusconi posted an ad for his open positions on Craigslist but received zero responses.

“It’s discouraging because you count on people; it’s a people business,” Rusconi says.

Rusconi’s American Kitchen is one of many Valley restaurants in need of staff now that they may resume dine-in services. Pita Jungle, for instance, is hiring hundreds in Arizona. Verdura is hiring, too.

Rusconi says he believes part of the problem lies with the increase in unemployment benefits the state is offering because of the shutdown. The temporary unemployment wages are now higher than what many restaurant workers make in a week on the job.

“It’s horrific what’s going on but, through an act of kindness, we’ve created a really negative situation for business owners,” he says. “We’re going to work through it one way or another, but it’s also making me slow down a little.”

Just 75 percent of his staff will be returning once he decides to reopen the restaurant's dining room. Applicants can visit daily between 2 and 4 p.m., though Rusconi encourages calling first to set up an appointment. He is in need of several line cooks, dishwashers, and bussers.

That support team will be vital for reopening, something he is hesitant to rush. Especially since restaurants can only fill a limited number of seats and Rusconi says he places public health at the forefront of his decision. Many of his guests are in a higher risk age group for contracting COVID-19, he says, and he wants to be able to put precautions in place in order to safely reopen. He’s hoping for June.

“It’s really a complicated formula that’s been put in front of us,” Rusconi says. “I will have to see what happens in the next couple weeks.”

At Persepshen, chef and owner Jason Dwight is opening for dine-in on Friday, May 14. But Dwight says he will not be rehiring any employees for reopening until he can start to fill his restaurant. For now, it will be himself, his sous chef, and assistant pastry chef taking to-go orders, cooking, cleaning, and serving guests.

He says it doesn’t make sense to hire more staff right now. “I would have to hire a couple servers, a host, bartender, dishwasher, a couple more, to fill our dining room 25 percent," he says, "And that would cost us more money than we would generate.”

Persepshen is sticking with a small staff for now.EXPAND
Persepshen is sticking with a small staff for now.
Chris Malloy

For now, Persepshen will continue pushing takeout for those not comfortable with dining in while also offering a limited menu for those who are. Dwight and his small staff are continuing to sanitize the restaurant using Adventurous Stills hand sanitizer and even had a crew in from Hospitality Bio Cleaners to clean the restaurant with the same practices used in hospital operating rooms.

“We’re very limited in what we can do,” he says. “So, we’re just rolling with the punches and punching back.”

Restaurants like Clever Koi and Fellow Osteria — both under the Born & Raised Hospitality umbrella, along with Across the Pond — were relatively immune to COVID-19’s economic effects, staffing wise.

Clever Koi, just down Central Avenue from Persepshen, did not have to let go of any employees during the shutdown, though some team members did not feel comfortable working during the pandemic. In lieu of tips, employees were paid higher wages across the board. Fellow Osteria, on the other hand, is now hiring for a handful of front-of-house positions for its Scottsdale location neighboring the ASU SkySong Center.

“[Fellow Osteria was] actually a little short-staffed to begin with so that whole situation kind of got exacerbated by the lockdown,” says Joshua James, co-owner of Born & Raised.

Both restaurants reopened to diners in a limited capacity on May 11. Fellow Osteria had 50 to 60 covers (the amount of diners in a restaurant each night) and Clever Koi had double that number, James says. Takeout is still available for guests who aren’t ready to dine in.

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James says his team has had to do a lot of adapting over the last six years, but this is the biggest curveball they’ve been thrown thus far. However, they wanted to reopen to show one way of moving forward.

“A lot of places aren’t opening and we respect their decision to do so,” James says. “We chose to do so because we feel we can set an industry standard.”

Part of keeping guests and employees safe is the use of masks, disposable menus, and at Clever Koi, the elimination of kitchen seating — bar seats placed in front of the kitchen so diners could watch the chefs.

“As long as we can have our guests come in and they can be distant but still have a quality experience,” James says, "then that’s where we want to be and that’s what we’ll continue to be."

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