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Restaurant Worker Shortage Hinders B-N Reopenings

a dining room
Larry Carius
Restaurants like Aroma (pictured here) in Bloomington Normal are opening back up for indoor dining, but not all have smooth sailing.

The end of COVID-19 mitigation rules that banned indoor restaurant service in Bloomington-Normal has created a new problem for Twin City eateries.

On-again off again restaurant service has caused many professional restaurant workers to give up on the community, according to Larry Carius, who writes about the Bloomington-Normal Restaurant Scene on Facebook.

"There's an employee shortage right now as they are opening indoor dining. They are scrambling to find employees," said Carius.

Carius said the shortage is largely in the professional, full-time restaurant worker category.

"Managers, assistant managers, chefs, cooks—a lot of them have moved outside of Bloomington-Normal. While our dining rooms were closed here, you could go to other states," said Carius.

Restaurants in central Illinois were able to reopen on Jan. 17 after the region moved back to Tier 1 mitigations. That allows restaurants and bars to allow 25% capacity indoors, or 25 people, whichever is less.

There's not as much of a shortage of servers and part-timers, but even in that category, Carius said one restaurant owner he knows recently had to be his own dishwasher. He said it's not clear how long it will take to replenish that segment of the workforce.

"We know that's not going to happen overnight. And as I had one restaurant owner tell me, Bloomington-Normal has very high expectations when it comes to restaurants and restaurant service," said Carius.

The Twin Cities added 20 restaurants and lost 14 restaurants last year. Carius said he is happy his earlier prediction was wrong that many locally-owned establishments would not be as successful as the chain eateries at weathering the pandemic.

"I think by adding 20 restaurants, that shows that the business people and investors still have a nice confidence in the Bloomington-Normal economy," said Carius, adding the numbers for openings and closings are similar to non-pandemic years.

And the openings haven't stopped.

A new Vietnamese restaurant is on pace to open in late March on Bloomington's east side, in the former Zoup location. And Texas Roadhouse is still planning on a late spring opening, said Carius.

He noted the Bloomington landmark Lucca Grill celebrated its 84th anniversary in business in December. Carius said it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. Lucca has begun selling its A La Baldini pizza cooked and frozen for reheating at home.

Nearly 29,000 people follow Carius's Bloomington-Normal Restaurant Scene Facebook page.

Listen to the interview with Charlie Schlenker

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.