Drinking in Change On The Labor Shortage

bartender jigger drinking change

Monday through Sunday, it doesn’t matter what day you open up the business pages of your favorite newspaper, you can count on seeing yet another story about the labor shortage in the hospitality industry.

And, inevitably, some financial wizard or politician will be claiming “free money” is hurting our businesses who are struggling to staff up, and that the way to turn this around and get all those bartenders, cocktail servers, bar backs and more back into their jobs is to cut off their unemployment. Well, maybe… or maybe not. Or rather, “free money” isn’t the whole picture. And if the hospitality industry doesn’t get serious about making changes to its broken model, then the labor shortage is going to keep being a problem.

And all the application and hiring incentives in the world won’t fix it. We know that at Total Food Service, and you probably did too. But for those in the back we thought we’d sit down with Kim Haasarud, President of the United States Bartenders Guild and see what her members are saying and how they’re approaching a return to work. Maybe we’ll all learn something.


There have been numerous stories in the news over the last few months about labor shortages in the hospitality industry.  Many of them, whether anecdotally from the ownership side or externally from economists/financial analysts, and politicians, are pointing to unemployment supplements as the explanation for why there aren’t enough job applicants.  But that’s not the whole picture, is it?

KH: We have been reading a lot of articles about the labor shortages and even seen politicians blaming these hardworking bartenders for being lazy and preferring to collect a check.  It’s disheartening to read.  And it’s not exactly what is going on. The enhanced unemployment payments are an easy thing people can point to and it’s easy to politicize the message that you can’t compete with free money.

But what they’re not looking at – and this is happening in other industries besides hospitality – is that pandemic has afforded people the luxury of time, luxury to reevaluate, prioritize, and re-assess their lives.  They are not just looking at their job as a paycheck, they’re asking themselves, “is this what I want to do is it going to make me happy?

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This re-evaluation and exploration of opportunities outside of hospitality, where is it leading them?

KH:  For example, I talked with a bartender who determined during the pandemic that he wasn’t going to return.  He had majored in computer science and loved programming languages and so during the pandemic he did all the research, studying and preparation he needed to and now instead of returning to the bar he’s creating his own software company.

I know others who say, I’ll go into real estate and try that, or my uncle is in mortgage banking, that seems lucrative, I’ll do that.

While certainly for people out of work that’s not a luxury situation, but time is. What did this introspection reveal?

KH:  Shutting our bars down absolutely offered the luxury of time spent on reassessing lives and pursuing hobbies and entrepreneurial interests that generate revenue.   And it has really shined a light on people having a lower tolerance for toxic environment.  One only needs to read the Anthony Bourdain book “Kitchen Confidential” to get a whiff of what some of these kitchen/restaurant/bar environments were like initially.    In those places, which had a low bar to entry to begin with, staff forgave a lot of bad behavior because of bundles of cash you took home – bad behavior was sort of swept under the rug in exchange for taking home a lot of money.

I once worked at a place where there was a sign on the door in the manager’s office that said, churn ‘em and burn ‘em, don’t get attached.  It was a sign of the culture reflecting how expendable workers were.  Intended as a joke, but not funny in actuality when you’re telling someone you don’t care about them because you can replace them next week.

So, a toxic work environment isn’t cutting it.  And shouldn’t; should it?

KH: No. That’s what we need to change.  And we need to change our guest interactions too.  We love creating warm and welcoming environments and bending over backwards to accommodate our guests, but it can’t be to the detriment of the staff.  And the power of the yelp reviewer, social media, etc. means that pleasing them at all cost comes at a high cost for the employee.  FOH and BOH bear the brunt of that.

So, if bars – and restaurants – are going to find that adequate level of staff that they need to profitably run their establishment somethings need to change, right?  I’m not talking about pre-2008 financial crash when signing bonuses were de rigueur in the financial industry and law firms’ kinds of perks, but something needs to give and the model needs to be re-evaluated, doesn’t it?

KH: Moving forward we need to be worker centric and embrace best practices from the corporate world.  We’ve got egregious guests who seem to be acting out more than ever, we’ve got supply chain issues, rising costs of ingredients, and all of that comes together to create a fraught environment that nobody wants to walk back into.  If it looked better, they would.

What’s your vision for an improved model?

KH: It’s really taking inventory of putting yourself in the shoes of these workers and looking at new labor models.  Instead of traditional model of building a cocktail so that let’s say 10% of a drink goes into the worker’s pocket and the rest of their salary is made up by the guest’s tip, what if we structured our menus so that more of the price of items went to labor costs?

Not only do we need to be paying them fairly, but we need to create established paths to leadership. We need to look at hospitality staff as not just expendable workers, and to do that you’ve got to look more than five feet ahead of you.

It forces management to reprioritize what they’re spending money on and focus instead on the workers and creating a better environment.  Maybe there are bonus incentives, education credits, health care.

And it needs to be a welcoming and diverse space for staff and guests.   If we take cues from corporate culture and are incentivizing them to stay and they’re in it for the long term and you’re growing with them that might have a longer tail of success.


New Sip You Need To Know

Filter this one under the category of “everything old is new again”!  That’s Makku for you.  And this delicious passion fruit expression taps the current craze for this fruit while pairing it with traditional Makkuli, the oldest alcoholic beverage in Korea which dates back to the 10th century.

Made from rice, nuruk (traditional fermentation starter), and water, Makkuli has a smooth body and subtly tart taste profile, which  is derived from lactic acid bacteria. It is typically a touch sweet, with an average Alcohol By Volume (ABV) of 6%.

MakkuThe name makkuli literally means ‘roughly filtered,’ and yes – it is roughly filtered! Makkuli has an opaque white appearance due to the delicate rice sediment remaining in the drink.

In Korea makkuli is served in bars known as makgeolli bars.  Today, here in the US, you can enjoy it in cans at home or at the beach, the pool, the ballpark, or wherever you gather with friends.  Available at on and off premise, as well as online at drinkmakku.com

  • Day & Nite
  • McKee Foodservice
  • RAK Porcelain
  • T&S Brass Eversteel Pre-Rinse Units
  • Imperial Dade
  • DAVO Sales Tax
  • AyrKing Mixstir
  • RATIONAL USA
  • BelGioioso Burrata
  • Inline Plastics Safe-T-Chef
  • Simplot Frozen Avocado