WEST TOWN — Coalfire Pizza in West Town is closed until Tuesday because of a shortage of line cooks to staff the restaurant.
Restaurant leaders announced Sunday morning they would temporarily close operations at its 1321 W. Grand Ave. location for the first time in the company’s 15-year history. Coalfire’s Lakeview restaurant, 3707 N. Southport Ave., is still open.
The West Town pizzeria has been “running on fumes” for a couple of years, operating with just enough people required to stay open, owner Dave Bomoni said. Finding enough line cooks has always been a challenge, and it’s gotten harder each year, he said.
But with pandemic-related shutdowns and more people eschewing service industry jobs, the business hit a breaking point this year, with barely enough employees to stay open even with reduced hours.
The West Town store has cut staff from 14 employees to about seven. Bonomi had worked kitchen shifts at the Lakeview location several times in the past few months.
The starting salary for a cook at Coalfire Pizza with little to no prior experience is $18 an hour, up from $15 an hour last year, with paid days off, overtime pay and the option to enroll in a health plan with half the costs covered by the company, Bonomi said.
But even with higher hourly rates and benefits than many similarly sized restaurants, Bonomi said people have increasingly turned down restaurant work for other jobs. Part of that is because of broader reckonings around toxic work environments and employee harassment endemic to the service industry, Bonomi said.
“When the pandemic hit, restaurants had kind of a ‘Me Too’ moment,” Bonomi said.
That reputation alone — along with the challenging nature of the work and low pay — is what steered a lot of people away from even applying, Bonomi said. Some employees have quit to seek work at larger restaurant groups or hotels with higher wages that a small restaurant like Coalfire Pizza can’t afford, Bonomi said.
Bonomi received an influx of applications at the beginning of the pandemic, mostly from people who were laid off at higher-paying restaurant jobs, but now that pool has mostly dried up.
“Now, [it’s] like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Bonomi said. “I’ve never had 15 people apply for a job, maybe get 12 of ‘em to schedule an interview, and have none show up [for the interview], and maybe one let you know that they’re not coming.”
Coalfire isn’t the only restaurant facing labor shortages. Across the country, restaurants, bars and cafes are struggling to handle customer demand with a smaller workforce.
Employment in the restaurant industry fell by 42,000 jobs in August for the first time in 2021, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The restaurant industry’s labor shortage also comes during what economists are calling “The Great Resignation” — when a record number of Americans are quitting their jobs or going on strike, fed up with issues like stagnating wages or lack of workplace protections.
Coalfire Pizza is known for selling thin-crust pies that are roasted in a 1,000-plus degree coal oven and topped with ingredients like Berkshire pork pepperoni, whipped ricotta and pistachio pesto.
Their pies — a mashup of East Coast thin-crust, New Haven, Chicago-tavern style, and Neapolitan pizza, Bonomi said — have been featured on multiple “best of” lists for pizza in Chicago and across the country since they opened in 2007.
As for when Coalfire Pizza will open back up, Bonomi has his fingers crossed the pizza joint will be back in operation Tuesday.
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