By Shawn Chitnis

ARVADA, Colo. (CBS4) – Restaurants looking to hire employees to meet the renewed demand for indoor dining since the pandemic say it is difficult to find enough interested applicants despite a higher unemployment rate in Colorado. Steuben’s offers around $20 an hour when you include tips for both its front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house employees.

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“A year later, the restaurant industry, we’re bouncing back,” said Josh Wolkon, the owner of the restaurant group Secret Sauce that includes both Steuben’s locations and Ace Eat Serve in Denver. “It’s actually an exciting time, it’s a real joy to see people come back out and experience a full-service dining experience for the first time in over a year.”

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Wolkon explains there was already a labor shortage in his industry and the past year has added a combination of factors making it even more of a challenge. He knows some workers went on to start other careers and some are still enjoying unemployment benefits without an urgency to get back to work. Others are likely still concerned about getting COVID-19. He says the current situation is the largest hiring surge he has ever seen for restaurants.

“Everybody is looking for help right now, as the weather gets nice and restrictions lessen, everybody needs help,” he told CBS4 on Thursday.

To compete for new employees in this market, Steuben’s in Arvada is hiring for all positions in the kitchen and the dining room as well as their food truck. Benefits include a wellness program, staff-provided meals, employee assistance for mental health and legal aid, and pay that is well above the minimum wage. The Arvada location is only open Wednesday to Sunday for dinner, Wolkon hopes to expand to weekend brunch and then weekday lunch service when he hires more staff.

Tips will be pooled for waiters and in the kitchen, the team will get their share of a separate fee charged to diners. In 2021, the minimum wage is $12.32 an hour and for tipped employees it is $9.30.

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“We are hearing from operators across the state that they are optimistic and investing in significant changes to continue to keep their restaurants safe, equitable, and gratifying for guests and workers alike,” Colorado Restaurant Association CEO Sonia Riggs said in a statement to CBS4. “There is an incredible opportunity right now for hospitality-minded workers to join the restaurant industry, at all levels.”

Other industries are busy trying to hire a large number of employees at once including Lowe’s home improvement stores across the country. The company has a national hiring day planned for May 4, the company wants to find 50,000 seasonal, part-time, and full-time associates including 664 in Denver.

Monarch Casino started a four-day career fair on Tuesday to find employees for its Black Hawk location, applicants could interview on-site for open positions.

“This is a viable career and it’s now paying salaries and hourly wages that can allow you to sustain and live in Colorado or this area right here and there’s a lot to learn,” Wolkon said.

The advantages of this profession include free training and education in the field and flexible schedules with a skillset including human interaction that can take you anywhere in the world, Wolkon added. He says restaurants have to get another generation excited about working in this industry. He wants to change how positions at restaurants are marketed so that people’s perceptions about these jobs are updated to current benefits. Even after the hardest year ever in the business, he is optimistic this could be a short-term struggle to find more applicants.

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“In my opinion, this is without question, the best time to get into the restaurant industry from a pay and benefits standpoint and from a career standpoint,” he said.

Shawn Chitnis