Big Anchorage restaurants say business is booming, but hiring struggle lingers

Restaurant hosts at 49th State Brewing Company answer incoming calls from several different phones, while also taking names from a line of customers wanting to dine in at the restaurant. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The line of people wanting a table at 49th State Brewing Company on a recent weekday evening snaked out the door and onto the sidewalk in downtown Anchorage.

Inside, four hostesses triaged the crowd: Answering questions, answering phone calls, directing customers to the bar and taking names for tables. The wait was about 90 minutes, and it was only 5 p.m. on a Thursday.

Hostess Rosabella Cebrian said this feels like the new normal.

“Super busy, so many people, you can hardly hear anything,” she said.

Server Katie Grato brings water to a large table on a Wednesday evening in July at 49th State Brewing. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Across the city, owners and staff at big restaurants say business is booming. There are crowds, long waitlists and noisy dining rooms filled with hungry tourists and locals who are eager to socialize and have money to spend. They say it’s a welcome change after surviving last year’s closures, capacity restrictions and all-around quiet.

But, just as the long-awaited rebound begins, the restaurants are limited by another major hurdle: There aren’t enough workers to keep up with the surge in demand. It’s a problem nationwide. With lines out the door, many still have empty tables inside. Some are forced to limit hours or close for full days.

“Getting our staffing levels to where we need them to be in order to meet the demand has been our biggest challenge,” said Lana Ramos, marketing manager for Locally Grown Restaurants, which owns Snow City Café, Spenard Roadhouse, Crush Bistro and South Restaurant and Coffeehouse.

“We’re constantly looking for staff at all of our restaurants,” she said. “There’s not one single position that we haven’t been hiring for over the past few months.”

At the same time, Ramos said, business is back to pre-pandemic levels.

Food runner Amanda prepares to deliver entrées at 49th State Brewing in downtown Anchorage. The wait to be seated on a Wednesday evening in July was roughly 1.5- to 2-hours, according to staff and patrons. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

‘We’re just making pizzas non-stop’

At downtown’s Anchorage Cider House | Fat Ptarmigan, general manager Billy Anderson said it’s even busier than 2019. He noticed the change in pace in late May.

“Every day we’re open feels like a weekend,” he said. “As soon as we open the doors, people start coming in, and we’ll go on a waitlist during lunchtime sometimes. We’re just making pizzas non-stop.”

Nearby, at 49th State, David McCarthy, sees the spike too. On a Friday night a couple weeks ago, he said, more than 200 guests were waiting for a table.

“It’s the beginning of a boom for our industry,” he said. “July 2021 has told us that the demand is there.”

But he’s still hiring for dozens of jobs — roughly 20% of the summer workforce.

A sign outside 49th State Brewing Company in downtown Anchorage. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

At Fat Ptarmigan, Anderson still needs to hire about 10 employees.

To try to meet dine-in demand with fewer workers, restaurants have had to scale back.

Fat Ptarmigan has stopped using food-delivery services like Grubhub and DoorDash, which it had leaned heavily on last year. It’s also closed two days a week, so it doesn’t overwork its smaller staff, said Anderson.

“It’s a really big challenge,” he said. “I would say 70% of my current staff have never worked in a restaurant before.”

At 49th State, McCarthy has also decided to close a couple days a week. And when the restaurant is open, they don’t seat all of the tables.

“Unfortunately, we are throttling the business back and creating the wait ourselves based on staffing challenges we have,” he said.

It’s a theme at other restaurants too: Discontinued delivery service, limited takeout hours and more empty tables until more workers are hired.

Though both still in training, Michael Banners (left) estimated he and Achita C. (center) have prepared 100 pizzas since 5 p.m. on a Wednesday evening in July at 49th State Brewing. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

‘Risk of being on the frontline’

There’s no single explanation for the hiring challenges.

Ramos said it’s unprecedented.

“Nobody is immune from this hiring shortage,” she said. “And I think I could say every restaurant in Anchorage, and probably Alaska, and let’s go nationally and globally, everybody is looking for people to cook and serve food in their restaurants. So, we have not experienced this before.”

At Bear Tooth Theatrepub, demand surged back around June and the restaurant couldn’t grow its workforce fast enough, said general manager Amara Liggett.

“It came on pretty quick,” she said. “We just weren’t able to reopen as fast because staffing wouldn’t allow for it.”

Liggett still needs to hire about 50 workers to be fully staffed. Without them, the theater and cafe side of the business remain closed, and more tables sit empty. Liggett is hoping to resume movies in August. She’s raised hourly pay and is offering an array of bonuses.

She said, over the past year, former Bear Tooth employees have decided to leave the state or go back to school or find a job in a different industry after a very unstable year.

“We lost a lot of long-term staff that had other options, or were working toward other fields of employment,” she said. “The risk just outweighed the benefit, between the money and being on the frontline.”

Ramos said Locally Grown’s restaurants also saw workers leave for similar reasons.

For places like 49th State, which doubles its workforce every summer, the staff shortage stems largely from fewer international students coming on J-1 visas for seasonal work, and fewer out-of-state college students looking for jobs in Alaska.

There was too much uncertainty earlier in the year, when they would’ve been making plans, said McCarthy, the owner.

He said Anchorage doesn’t seem to have the local workforce to support the level of seasonal employment the restaurant needs.

To try to attract staff, McCarthy has recently created new bonuses and added a service fee to the menu that goes to the cooks. He’s also raised line cooks’ hourly wage to $15 to $20 an hour, up from $13 to $15 an hour in 2019, he said.

From potential local workers, he said, he hears that a lack of child care is the biggest challenge — especially in the evenings — so he’s now considering opening a daycare center near the restaurant.

“They literally can drive to work, walk next door, drop their child off, and then have the ability — on their breaks — to walk and see their children,” he said.

However, at this point, even with the incentives, he said hiring is still slow and the government’s decision to end extra unemployment benefits last month had little impact

‘Be patient’

Anchorage Daily News restaurant writer Mara Severin said, overall, now is a good time for diners to practice patience.

“You know, be a little gentle. Be patient,” she said. “Remember why we so badly wanted to get back into these restaurants.”

Restaurant patrons eat and drink at 49th State Brewing Company in downtown Anchorage. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Severin said she’s hearing of long wait times and staffing trouble at lots of the city’s restaurant. But not all of them. It’s complicated, she said.

“I want to say that maybe the places that, I think, look busiest are the ones that feel like those kind of social hubs with a bar, you know, that kind of have that kind of community feel,” she said.

But some smaller operations, like Queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian restaurant, are still waiting for business to pick back up.

“It is very slow. At this moment, very hard to survive,” Dawit Ogbamichael said during a quiet afternoon at the restaurant last Thursday.

Ogbamichael and his wife opened the restaurant in 2019, and they’re the only employees. He thinks the fact the restaurant opened so soon before the pandemic makes it harder to attract customers now. Plus, he said, he knows locals don’t necessarily eat Ethiopian food every day, so maybe Queen of Sheba didn’t become a routine spot to eat.

On top of that, he said, the lunch crowd hasn’t returned.

“Offices that we used to serve, the people that work inside, now they do it from remote. So that means no one comes out for lunch,” he said. “I don’t see any kind of miracle that will try to save us.”

On that afternoon, Ogbamichael was weighing how long the restaurant could stay open.

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