Housing crisis brings unexpected consequences for Outer Banks restaurants
By Maggie Miles/Correspondent
Restaurants have been on the front line for more than a year.
Employers and staff have dealt with adhering to COVID-19 restrictions, increased responsibilities and precautions that magnified employees’ to-do lists during already-busy shifts. Many adapted by inventing new— oftentimes less efficient—ways of doing things. With restrictions lifting and widespread availability of vaccines, you’d hope that restaurant workers could finally take a breath, catch a break and see a little light at the end of the tunnel.
But as the nationwide housing crisis implodes on the Outer Banks, this hope is little more than wishful thinking.
Lack of affordable housing has induced a staffing crisis in restaurants across the country. On the Outer Banks, this coincides with an increasing number of full-time residents and record number of vacationers.
This summer, more people than ever are coming to wine and dine at local establishments.
Anyone eating out on the Outer Banks right now might see this issue materialize as longer wait times, limited take-out, one or two extra days closed a week. Employees often work the job of two to three people, including additional responsibilities due to CDC guidelines. Summertime volume began unexpectedly early in 2021, bringing many workers to the brink of burnout and pure exhaustion by summer’s typical start.
“The housing situation for the service industry is like this secret monster under the bed who cuts your ankles while you’re getting ready before each shift. We are walking, with a limp, but no one is running,” Michelle Winters says, a server at Trio Restaurant and Market in Kitty Hawk.
What is causing this extreme staffing crisis that forces restaurants to serve a record volume of customers with a percentage of the work force they’d usually have?
“It’s a perfect storm,” Karen Brown says, President and CEO of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce. From her perspective, there are three main issues at play: First, the housing crisis itself. The increased ability for people to work remotely allowed an influx to buy a home on the Outer Banks and live here full time.
The sustained demand subsequently drummed up the average house’s price between 15-130%. This increased cost of living outprices the labor force that supports the islands’ tourism-driven economy, particularly within the restaurant industry.
Second, the record number of tourists this season ups the demand for vacation rentals, which many locals have decided to meet by turning their long-term rentals into short-term Airbnbs and VRBOs. This effectively eliminates housing for seasonal workers, such as college students coming to work here for the summer. Worse, it pushes out local restaurant workers who can no longer afford to buy or rent homes in the area.
On the other side of the situation, select businesses do offer housing, yet they still struggle to find employees. The national halt on the J-1 International Student Program is part of this. The program annually gives international students the opportunity to travel to the United States to work service jobs, earn money and experience American culture. Many Outer Banks restaurant owners depend on them in the summertime.
The program typically brings 1,700 to 1,800 international students to work on the Outer Banks. They work as dishwashers, bussers and line cooks, often holding two to three jobs throughout the season.
This year, travel bans and restrictions in other countries, ranging from similar travel bans to embassy shutdowns, has brought the Outer Banks less than 10%of the usual number of international student workers, leaving 3,000 to 4,000 jobs unfilled.
This has become the next phase in restaurants trying to survive in an abnormal reality. It’s hard to see what goes on behind the scenes when you walk into a restaurant. The food, the décor, the faces running the show may all look familiar, but the hidden reality is things are far from normal on the Outer Banks.
“As customers, you may notice longer ticket times, you might sit at a dirty table or wait longer for service,” Winters says. “I guess we all ask for grace […] every shift is missing pivotal people, kitchen staff especially, no hostesses, no dishwasher. Each person is doing the job of one-and-a-half people or two, not to mention the majority also have two or more jobs. Please remember kindness and patience, we are all working exponentially harder than usual.”
Diane Hamilton, a cook at Beachcombers Wood Fired Grille & TikiHut echoes the sentiment, saying, “We are doing our best. We can’t wait for our season to start, but we are worried we can’t give our customers what they expect. […] If the food comes out a little late, it’s not that we are slacking, it’s that we have 25 tickets hanging and only two people cooking.”
Brown says it best: “We as people just need to take a breath. Everyone is doing the best they can,” she says. “I just hope we can get through the summer, end on a high note and not disappoint our tourists. We really do want them here, and we want them to have a great experience, because we want them to come back, but we would love to ask them to be patient, kind and generous.”
Now that we know what’s going on behind the scenes, here are a few suggestions from restaurant owners to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable dining-out experience while on the Outer Banks.
1. Consider visiting or ordering during non-peak times—generally noon-1:30 p.m. for lunch and 5:30-7:30 p.m. for dinner .Switch things up with a lunch or early dinner instead.
2. Place take-out orders before the dinner rush, then reheat when you are ready to eat.
3. Look over the menu before visiting or phoning in a to-go order. Having an idea in mind of what you want to order helps improve efficiency and moves the line along.
4. Send in one person from your family or group to check on availability. If there’s space, then everyone else can follow. This can help get a table a bit faster and keeps your party a bit more comfortable—not pressed together while you wait.
5. If there’s an issue during your dining experience, consider calling restaurants directly instead of leaving a review online. Mistakes happen, and no one wants you to have a bad experience. Calling over the phone can give them a chance to fix it.