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Chicago Restaurants Are Struggling To Keep Staff As Burned-Out Workers Bail For Better Pay, Less Stress

Many restaurants have hiked wages, but it's not enough for workers disillusioned by cranky customers and grueling work. “If you don’t have to go back to hell, why set yourself up to burn?”

Staff works in the kitchen at Split Rail in West Town on June 10, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Chef Won Kim needs 10 people to fully staff his Bridgeport restaurant, Kimski. Right now, he has about five. 

Turnover is so high some staff don’t stay longer than a month, Kim said. Staff make $15 an hour plus tips, taking home about $20-$25 per hour before taxes. But it’s still not enough to keep staffers showing up, he said.

“Everyone interviews really well,” Kim said. “They talk about dedication and talk about how hard they’re going to work, and then when push comes to shove … even just one busy night is too much for them to handle. I feel like there isn’t one reason.”

Seven out of 10 restaurants nationwide are understaffed and scrambling to retain and attract employees, according to the National Restaurant Association. The staff shortage has forced some Chicago restaurants to close permanently while others cut business hours, scale back service and push employees to work longer hours to stay afloat.

The nationwide scramble for restaurant comes amid a great resignation in the U.S. A record high of 4.5 million American workers quit their jobs in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One million of those people worked in the restaurant and hospitality industries. 

An average of 771,000 workers a month have left both industries nationwide between February and June data shows.

Credit: Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
Won Kim, owner of Kimski in Bridgeport, helps staff deep clean and organize the restaurant on Aug. 29, 2022.

Restaurants are offering more incentives to get people in the door, but it’s not enough for burned out service industry veterans or candidates disillusioned by long hours, cranky customers and grueling work.

Kim understands burnout, he said. The constant stress of running a restaurant has him making plans to rent Kimski for restaurant pop-ups over the winter so he can have a break, he said.

“These days — I’m not even lying to you — my only requirement for the front of house is please show up,” Kim said. “Some people can’t even do that.”

Workers Want Better Pay

Business owners, industry experts and former restaurant workers have different takes on why has it been so hard to find and retain workers.

Low wages are the most common reason why people have left the food service industry, according to a July 2021 study from the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center.

The average hourly wage for the food industry is $17.72 nationwide — the lowest hourly average across all job markets, according to federal data.

Sonny Nouard, a former chef, has worked in the restaurant industry for 15 years. Nouard started looking for other jobs during the pandemic after losing his Northalsted restaurant, Istanbul Grill, but he wasn’t happy with what was being offered.

Nouard said some places with low staffing struggled to keep up with cleaning; others couldn’t afford to pay his salary as a sous or executive chef. Both made the field unappealing, and he lost his passion for cooking, he said.

“A friend of mine, he’s a sous [chef], and he makes $55,000 [annually] and cooks 60 hours a week. I look at him and say, ‘What the f— are you doing? That’s not enough money,’” Nouard said.

Credit: Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
A staff member at Kimski helps during “deep cleaning day.” The restaurant has had a hard time retaining staff post-pandemic.

Jamie Gibson had been in the industry since 2006; most recently, he ran the River North restaurant, Reverie, until it closed in 2020. Since then, he has been extremely reluctant to return to Chicago’s restaurant scene, turning down offers to manage or work security at other clubs, he said.

Gibson left Sound Bar after a fatal shooting outside the club killed his co-worker in March 2019. Lingering trauma from that incident, combined with concerns about gun violence in River North and low wages, has deterred him from taking a similar job, he said.

“I know tons of people that just won’t go back to anything involving Downtown Chicago,” Gibson said. “From the bar scene to the restaurant scene … it’s all hurting because people are fed up, and nobody gets paid enough to worry about getting robbed, shot, carjacked or murdered.”

The pandemic also gave people an opportunity to consider other industries and opportunities aligning with their goals, Gibson said. Nouard agreed, having recently started school to pursue audio engineering.

Dominque Durr, a neosoul singer, was among the staff laid off from Pink Taco in River North in July. The restaurant’s owners closed it to open another concept.

Durr was able to find a job almost immediately at Epic Burger, making $15 an hour working the register and in the kitchen. She wishes it was $18 an hour, she said, but is grateful for consistent hours and a flexible schedule that works with her music career, she said.

Still, the mom of three said she wishes the industry could provide more stability until she can transition out of the restaurant business to focus on her passion as a musician full-time.

“We are working hard. Forty hours just to pinch pennies … it’s exhausting,” Durr said.

A 2021 survey of more than 4,700 restaurant workers showed 15 percent changed industries in the past year, with another 33 percent wanting to do the same, according to Black Box Intelligence.

“If you don’t have to go back to hell, why set yourself up to burn?” Gibson said.

‘I Would Schedule 10 Interviews, And Only 2 To 3 Of Them Would Show Up’

Although the industry is struggling with inflation and staff shortages, restaurants are trying anything and everything to keep employees, said Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

When the Chicago restaurant industry shut down in March 2020, many of their employees went to work in other businesses, like cannabis distribution centers and stores, Toia said.

Many restaurants are offering higher wages, health care and wellness benefits, faster check payments, family leave and more to attract employees, Toia said.

But that hasn’t been enough to get applicants in the door at some bars and restaurants, owners said.

“We couldn’t find anyone to work in the kitchen for $25 an hour,” said Stasch Kuras, a former manager for Boss Bar and Miki’s Park in River North. “And we were willing to bring on someone with very little to no experience. I would schedule 10 interviews, and only two to three of them would show up.”

Of the people who were offered jobs, some ended up ghosting Kuras, he said. The few who responded took jobs in other industries, he said.

Credit: Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
A staff member at Kimski helps to deep clean the restaurant on August 29, 2022.

Every day with an open position leaves the rest of the crew to try and make up for the shortage, Kuras said; he’s worried that could lead to industry-wide burnout.

“The girls at Boss, they were working 14-, 15-, 16-hour shifts. Again, the money there … at times they can make $1,000 on a Friday or Saturday night, but they burn out badly,” Kuras said. 

Kuras is a bartender at the Ritz-Carlton, a union property where workers get health benefits, overtime, holiday pay and almost $30 an hour plus tips after the first year. Still, several open positions haven’t been filled.

To pick up the slack, managers have asked workers to work seven or more days in a row — which many refused to do as a right under their union — leading to limited hours at the hotel’s cafe and the scaling-back of 24-hour room service, Kuras said.

Kim has also had to scale back his hours at Kimski and the restaurant is now only open five days a week. He’s also picked up duties prepping and stocking the kitchen in the mornings.

The last couple of years dealing with the staff shortage has taken the fun out of the business, Kim said.

“It’s sad that I’ve gotten beat down like this, but I’m at my wits end,” Kim said.

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