2016-09-08 / Front Page

Summer labors to reach finish line

Workers have been lacking
By Patti Brandt Burgess
Of The Enterprise staff

Many local entrepreneurs are coming up short on dollars and long on sweat after a long, busy summer.

A lack of help has resulted in several businesses shortening their hours, cutting some of their services and even turning away customers.

For some, it meant those employees who did work had to put in longer hours — some without taking a day off.

Ben Walraven, owner of Tucker’s of Northport, said the restaurant and bowling alley got by over the summer, but lost business due to the shallow labor pool.

“It definitely cost us some business this year, but we did not have to shorten our hours,” Walraven said.

And with high school and college students going back to school at the end of summer, things got worse.

“Right about now it’s pretty horrible,” Walraven said.

Some other local restaurants had no choice but to cut back on hours of operation, including the Early Bird, which opted earlier this year to not open on Mondays, and the Riverside Inn, which eliminated its Sunday brunch. Both restaurants are in Leland.

Kate Vilter, who owns the Riverside Inn, said at one point her chef, Pete Siagkris, had not taken a day off in three weeks.

“We were never fully staffed — ever, not even for five minutes,” Vilter said.

The restaurant, which usually goes to seven days a week after Memorial Day, remained closed on several Tuesdays at both the beginning and the end of the summer season, she said.

There are lots of people from culinary schools and from out of the area who would like to work at the Riverside during the summer, Vilter said.

“But there’s nowhere for them to live,” she said. “Even my employees who live here year round struggle to find places to rent.”

What’s the solution?

“It’s one of the things we’re going to take a look at in the next couple of months,” Vilter said.

For Bob Sutherland, owner of Cherry Republic, the solution has been renting a Maple City home for his summer employees. One employee lives there year-round, he said. That number was bumped up to five and six people over the summer, he said.

He plans to expand his employee housing next year.

“I think it’s just a part of doing business,” Sutherland said. “Mackinac Island does this and we’re going to have to create these opportunities ourselves.”

But he knows offering housing is also a sticky wicket when houses in Leelanau County can be rented out for top dollar during the summer.

Sutherland says he has been both lucky and blessed to find and keep staff, especially considering he added 50 employees who work year-round at the cherry factory that just opened in Empire in February.

But a lack of help is an issue that keeps bubbling up, he said.

“Every year we are more and more conscious of it,” Sutherland said.

According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of Leelanau County people who were working increased to 10,896 in July 2016 from 10,812 in July 2015, dropping the rate of unemployed people to 3.8 percent this July, compared to 4.7 percent last year.

During the same period the labor force remained about the same, dropping slightly to 11,328 people in July 2106 from 11,345 in 2015.

But the county depends on attracting people from outside of the area to work in the service industry to take care of a population that swells in summer. Many of those potential employees are college students who can make big money in tips over the summer.

With some fast food restaurants in Traverse City paying $11 per hour and one ‘dollar’ store offering $14 per hour for full-time help — $13 per hour for part-time — local businesses are finding it hard to compete.

Walraven said this year he offered his summer employees incentives such as a mileage stipend if they had a long commute to Tucker’s — located on the county’s northernmost tip — and an end-of-year bonus if they stayed for the entire summer.

He also said he offers competitive wages. Waitresses earn tips, but other employees are paid by the hour. Walraven said that if he didn’t offer his hourly employees competitive wages, they wouldn’t stay.

And if there isn’t enough help, there’s a cost, he said.

“There’s an immediate drop in revenue,” he said. “Either you can’t turn your tables fast enough or customers walk out.”

Sutherland offers his summer employees a match program. At the end of summer he matches every $1 they have saved during the summer. If the employee comes back for a second summer, he matches each $1 with $1.50, and if they come back for a third, he matches each $1 with $2.

“We really try to incentivize our kids to come back,” he said. “Pay is very important.”

Return to top