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Restaurants are hungry for help as La Jolla enters its busy season

Beaumont's in Bird Rock is one of many La Jolla restaurants suffering from understaffing as the busy season arrives.
(File)

Filling staff positions has been a persistent problem since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning fewer available tables and longer waits.

La Jolla’s busy season is getting started, and local restaurants are hungry for extra staff to meet the growing demand.

But persistent staffing problems brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic mean fewer available tables and longer waits.

“We’re busy; the demand is there,” said Trey Foshee, owner and chef of George’s at the Cove. “We’re often at our limit.”

Foshee said the busy season begins at the onset of daylight saving time in March and continues until the end of October.

Kirstin Hamerslag, who owns Barbarella Restaurant & Bar in La Jolla Shores with her husband, Blake, said she’s “expecting and hoping for” big numbers this season. But Barbarella is understaffed.

“We’ve had a lot of concerns,” Hamerslag said.

Megan Heine, who owns Beaumont’s in Bird Rock and Brockton Villa in The Village with her husband, Dave, said, “It’s really frustrating as an employer who’s anticipating this huge influx of business, very happily ready to get back to our full hours of operation, ready to be fully staffed … and yet we can’t find the people.”

Pointing to the widespread nature of the problem, Heine said she receives daily advice from restaurant associations on managing issues related to understaffing.

“The industry as a whole is extremely challenged,” Foshee said. “Pre-COVID, we were in a staffing shortage because there was, at that time, just too many restaurants.”

Foshee had hoped that people who lost their jobs during the pandemic would reenter the workforce, “but that hasn’t been the case,” he said. “It seems like it gave people the opportunity to … rethink what they were doing with their lives, decide to go in a different direction or … maybe move out of San Diego.”

Visitors from Arizona dine on the Ocean Terrace of George's at the Cove in La Jolla.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Foshee said staffing shortages at George’s are more a “back of the house” problem such as in the kitchen. “The servers are busy, they’re making money,” he said. “It’s a lucrative job with limited hours, which everybody wants.”

Before COVID, Foshee said, he would run a “help wanted” ad and receive eight to 12 applications. But in recent weeks, the same ads have netted three applicants.

“And a lot of times they don’t show up for interviews,” he said.

Foshee plans to open a new restaurant in La Jolla Shores, where he closed Galaxy Taco six months ago. “My biggest concern is staffing” he said.

Details about the new restaurant will be released in coming weeks, Foshee said.

“I don’t see any way around [the staffing shortage],” he said. “I think everybody has adjusted their pay rates accordingly. … I talk to a lot of people and I think we pay at the upper end of the range. But it doesn’t really seem to make a difference.”

Foshee said George’s isn’t losing employees, so “we’re just taking care of the people we have and trying to be as reasonable and as generous as we can. As somebody comes along, we grab them.”

Heine said she went into “full hiring mode” at both of her restaurants once the pandemic began to ebb, offering above-average pay and benefits, but without much success.

“We don’t know where all the people have gone,” she said.

She lost members of the kitchen staff to the construction industry during the pandemic but said that doesn’t account for the large numbers of unfilled positions.

Hamerslag said she decided to shift her mindset from finding people to training those who want to work or are already employed with her.

“There are people out there looking for jobs and opportunities, and the new challenge is mining them,” she said.

Hamerslag said Barbarella has a new executive chef who had “ample sous chef experience. We’ve taken her under our wing and we’ve trained her.”

“It’s impossible to find qualified people,” Hamerslag said, so her focus is on “finding good people who want to work hard … and who want to grow.”

Foshee agreed, saying that in the restaurant industry, “you can start in without any formal education. … You can work your way up and learn your trade and end up being a professional in the industry and making good money.”

Hamerslag said “it’s actually exciting. It brings new mentalities and new perspectives to the industry. Although it’s arduous … to find these people, it’s actually a blessing in disguise.”

As for whatever lies ahead this busy season, Foshee asked people to “be kind to the restaurants you visit. We’re doing the best we can.” ◆