Help Wanted: Madison restaurants are hiring, but workers aren’t applying

The industry-wide restaurant employee shortage has hit Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis.– “It’s like doing the pandemic in reverse.”

That’s how Jordan Bright, managing partner at the Madison-based Food Fight restaurant group, describes the current state of the restaurant industry.

With Easter just a few days away, local restaurants are preparing for holiday crowds and a new challenge: filling thousands of open positions. While the pandemic cost the industry nearly six million jobs and wiped out three decades worth of employees in just six weeks, this spring, many of those lost jobs are once again available.

Food Fight currently employs 450 people across 20 restaurants. Before the pandemic, more than 1,000 people worked at the company. Bright is now re-hiring for many of those roles, but is struggling to find applicants. He understands why.

“People are still hesitant about when the best time is to jump back into the industry,” he explained.

Bright had this piece of encouragement for people skeptical about joining the service industry: “For almost all restaurants that are open right now, if they are still standing, they have managed their position extremely well. They’re past the worst part of it.”

Tara Duffin is experiencing a challenge similar to Food Fight at Rule No. One Hospitality, the group behind Merchant and Lucille in downtown Madison.

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“Right now is a crucial time to get strong teams built at each location so we’re prepared and ready to go,” she told News 3 Now. “We’re getting prepared for a super, super busy summer. We think it’s going to be bigger than ever.”

Duffin said the combination of increased capacity, carryout and delivery orders, and the restaurant’s outdoor ‘streatery’ will allow them to serve more customers than even before the pandemic. That is, if they can hire enough employees.

Bright explained that, for every job post, Food Fight is currently receiving half the number of resumes compared to pre-pandemic. That means it’s taking twice as long to fill each open position, for both hourly and salary roles.

For that reason, he said that restaurants aren’t expecting people to have experience. He said the most important qualities are a good attitude and the willingness to learn. Managers will take care of on-the-job skill-based training.

Click here for a list of current restaurant industry job openings in Wisconsin.