Business is booming.

Maine’s restaurant labor shortage intensifies as student employees return to school

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These days, it seems as if every week someone is working their last day at Terlingua, the popular restaurant on Washington Avenue that serves Texas-style barbecue.

Lots of high school and college students worked there over the summer, many of them in the crucial supporting roles of hosts, bussers and food runners – and now, one by one, they are leaving to go back to the classroom. The departures represent about a third of the restaurant’s front-of-house staff.

“Everybody’s stressed out,” said Pliny Reynolds, who owns Terlingua with his wife, Melanie, and has been forced to rethink how he serves his customers. “Everybody’s working harder just to keep up with all the tourists who seem to keep heading our way. It’s been kind of a brutal summer.”

Restaurants and other hospitality businesses had already been struggling through summer, thanks to an ongoing labor shortage that has left them with fewer hands to serve customers during one of the busiest seasons in memory. Now the late summer-early fall exodus of student workers back to the classroom is putting even more of a strain on the employees who remain, and on the ability of the businesses to keep their doors open.

The back-to-school departures are forcing many restaurants and hotels to cut back on services or close their doors some days, so they don’t let quality slip and burn out the rest of their staff.

Maine restaurants rely on young people for “a substantial share of their summer staffing,” says Glenn Mills, deputy director of the Center for Workforce Research at the Maine Department of Labor.

In July 2019, before the pandemic hit, more than 7,400 jobs in the state’s food services industry were held by 14- to 18-year-olds, census data show. That’s about 14 percent of the total food service jobs that were available. And another 14 percent, just over 7,300 food-service jobs, were filled by 19- to 21-year-olds.

Erin Fralley, a 21-year-old student at the University of Maine who is studying tourism and hospitality, has worked at the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport for five years and has become known as the resort’s “pinch hitter,” she said. “I just go where I’m needed.”

Justin DeWalt, general manager at Terlingua in Portland, delivers food to tables during a rush last week. Pliny Reynolds, who owns Terlingua with his wife, Melanie, said, “Everybody’s working harder just to keep up with all the tourists who seem to keep heading our way.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But this season, as other students have quit to return to school, Fralley has stepped into that role in a big way. Fralley usually works about 40 hours a week during the summer; last week, she worked a little over 65 hours. Every day she checks to see which department is hurting most, and heads there first. Usually eight employees are required to run the breakfast buffet on a busy day, for example. Last week, Fralley said, there were two. Even managers were pouring coffee in the mornings.

“I’ll start my day off doing breakfast,” Fralley said. “Sometimes I’ll go up to the office and do some sales work first, then I’m off and going to other departments like housekeeping or the front desk, or helping out with lunch or dinner service.”

Jean Ginn Marvin, whose family owns the resort, said the business hires about 50 students every year. The past couple of years, because of COVID, the ongoing hospitality labor shortage has been worse because there are no foreign workers coming into the country. And now it’s even more challenging, Marvin said, because local schools started classes last week, before Labor Day, which is earlier than usual and “a complete disaster” for the resort. She said the high school kids who used to work in the Nonantum’s family activities programs have all gone back to school, and she’s having to ask upper-level managers to pitch in teaching art classes and organizing bike rides.

“Everybody’s working way too many hours every week,” Marvin said. “Something that I really strive for is to give my people a work-life balance, and I’m just not able to do it right now, and I feel terrible about it. I know a lot of people are working way too many hours just to keep things afloat.”

And for the first time in more than two decades, the Nonantum has closed all of its dining venues two days a week. On Sundays and Wednesdays, Marvin makes sure that guests have a list of Kennebunkport restaurants that are open, along with information on whether they take reservations or deliver. She invites food trucks onto the property. The resort’s fine dining seafood restaurant, 95 Ocean, usually stays open until at least Columbus Day, but this year it will close on Sept. 16.

Less than a mile down the road from the Nonantum is another tourist favorite, The Clam Shack, which has a business model that largely relies on hiring high school and college students, along with – in normal years – J-1 visa holders. Steve Kingston and his wife, owners of the seafood shack, also own Aunt Marie’s, an ice cream shop on Ocean Avenue; Satellite Doughnuts on Spring Street; and The Sugar Shack, a candy store on Western Avenue. Every year, among all the businesses, the couple hires 60 to 70 students. Most, about 40, are employed at The Clam Shack. These are jobs that cash-strapped high schoolers covet: Kingston pays them $16-$25 an hour.

Server Georgia Herr delivers food to a table at Terlingua in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

This summer has already been difficult because of the flood of…

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2021-09-07 08:00:55

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