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San Francisco misplaced greater than half its restaurant jobs in the course of the pandemic

The first months of 2021 were dismal at San Francisco’s storied House of Prime Rib. One year into the pandemic, with indoor dining still forbidden by the city, the restaurant’s more than 90 workers who once carved prime rib and tossed salads table side were nowhere to be seen. With no outdoor dining space, longtime owner Joe Betz had laid them off.

“We were told we had to close for a couple of months, and that turned into a long time,” he said.

House of Prime Rib was hardly alone, newly released data from the US Census Bureau confirms. Between 2019 and 2021 — the depths of the pandemic shutdown — San Francisco lost more than half its jobs in the food service industry, according to data from the bureau’s annual American Community Survey. In 2019, the city had a reported 31,501 food service workers; in 2021, there were just 14,201 — a 55% plunge. It was by far the biggest drop in any sector, according to the survey.

For Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and owner of San Francisco restaurants Rose’s Cafe and Terzo, the new census numbers come as no surprise.

Comparing 2021, a year in which restaurants were still bound by restrictions on indoor dining capacity and vaccine requirements, to a year like 2019, which was booming, makes the workforce decline appear much more strong, she said.

“2019 was a pretty high bar and that was a really good year,” said Thomas, who cited record convention attendance numbers and hotel bookings. “Restaurants were super busy.”

Then, restaurants closed in March 2020. While they could reopen their dining rooms that fall, the change was short-lived due to rising coronavirus cases. In March of the following year, indoor dining returned at 25% capacity. Starting March 26 of that year, capacity increased to 50%, though bars remained closed. San Francisco loosened restrictions on April 15, allowing bars to come back.

An employee sanitizes a table after diners leave at House of Prime Rib in San Francisco in October 2020, about a month before San Francisco shut down indoor dining again.

Kelsey McClellan/Special to The Chronicle

House of Prime Rib, for example, remained closed during 2020’s restrictions apart from a brief reappearance in October before the city shut down indoor dining again. In March 2021, the restaurant reopened and Betz hired back about half of his employees, although a few people remained on the payroll through the closures. He continued to re-hire workers slowly as restrictions loosened.

Thomas is confident that numbers for 2022 will tell a different story about San Francisco’s restaurant employment.

“It’s going to look a lot better,” she said.

That new story might well be under way.

From August 2021 to August 2022, preliminary data from the California Employment Development Department for the San Francisco-San Mateo metro region showed a 14.7% increase in employment in the “food services and drinking places” sector. Data shows 72,300 workers in the sector in August 2021 and a preliminary 82,900 in August 2022.

Frank Chui, owner of Hang Ah Tea Room, packs an order for pickup in February 2021, before San Francisco reopened indoor dining.

Frank Chui, owner of Hang Ah Tea Room, packs an order for pickup in February 2021, before San Francisco reopened indoor dining.

Constanza Hevia H./Special to The Chronicle

Frank Chui, owner of Chinatown dim sum spot Hang Ah Tea Room, let his whole front of house staff go during the most restricted parts of the pandemic. Like House of Prime Rib, Hang Ah also started to hire back in March 2021.

That was a challenge. Many restaurant workers had left the field as jobs dried up. And, specifically for Hang Ah Tea Room, hiring from within Chinatown was difficult in 2021.

“The fear during the pandemic was more prevalent in the Asian community than in the non-Asian community,” Chui said

For many workers living in multigenerational housing, “the risk of contracting a virus and bringing it home outweighs the money they would be making. So many chose not to work and cut costs,” Chui said. This year, he’s seeing more applicants.

Yet, most restaurant operators speak of too few workers rather than too few jobs these days. Staffing shortages have stubbornly kept many from fully reopening.

Not at House of Prime Rib, though. Today, says Betz, staffing levels are higher than they were before the pandemic, with nearly 100 workers stirring martinis and wheeling carts of beef across the dining room.

“It might be my ego talking, but I think this is maybe the happiest crew we have had in a long time,” he said. “It also helps that we pay fairly well.”

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