TAMPA, Fla. — As Florida continues to reopen and more people travel to the Sunshine State for leisure, restaurants are feeling the growing demand as an industry that has struggled to restaff since the start of the pandemic.
“One in five restaurants nationally have closed for good permanently, we have lost some staff,” said Michael Kilgore, a spokesperson for the Columbia Restaurant Group which owns 14 eateries in Florida.
The one you may know best is Florida’s Oldest Restaurant and the world’s largest Spanish restaurant — The Columbia in Ybor City.
With that kind of success, you can imagine the demand, but just like the rest of the country, they too are noticing customers aren’t always patient or kind.
“People will come in and see an empty table and wonder why they can't have it,” Kilgore expressed, “It's because somebody has a reservation to that table not there yet, or we don't have a server who can handle it. If we cannot serve you and treat you the way that we want to or that will be up to your expectations, then we're not going to seat you there.”
Starting this month, customers will see signs when they walk into one of their 14 restaurants, like Santo Stefano, encouraging patrons to “Please be kind when you dine.”
“We know that people come to our Columbia Restaurant Group to escape from all their worries, but sometimes it feels as if some of them have come in with their last nerve right on edge,” Kilgore explained. “We're just trying to say we understand it, we get it. We want to be your shelter from the storm. We also hope that you can give us a little understanding and patience because we're working through all the same issues here.”
The restaurant group also posted the campaign across their social media.
This kindness campaign is similar to one started by the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce in May called “Patience In Pinellas.”
“That's what we thought by launching the Patience in Pinellas initiative that it could be something in the face of the consumer. Right? And they would see it and the workers would wear that button and just say, ‘Can you please bear with us today? We're doing the best we can.’” said chamber CEO Robin Miller.
After a few months, they phased out the campaign, but recently noticed it was still needed.
“It definitely is the fact that we're still hearing from some of the diligent staff working so hard right, they're working double shifts, they're doing the best they can to service the great consumers,” Miller explained. “Our business members have a great need for it they feel like that their staff is being taken care of because someone's speaking on their behalf.”
The latest job numbers from the Florida Chamber of Commerce show the sunshine state recovered 974,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic to September.
However, we still need to fill about 300,000 jobs, 66% of those positions are in the leisure and hospitality sector.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA) tells ABC Action News that restaurants are still getting hit from all angles across the state.
Examples include increased prices from demand, supply shortages and inflation; higher labor costs with minimum wage increases and competitive salary offerings to bring people back to work; as well as continued COVID safety protocols.
Because of this, FRLA is also planning to start a statewide kindness campaign.
“Nothing ever gets better by yelling at a hostess, nothing ever gets better, by, by storming out of a restaurant. We don't get better and doesn't make your situation better,” Kilgore exclaimed.
While the Columbia Restaurant Group is actively hiring, they know fine wine takes time.
“I think it may take a while. But, as we say in our campaign, together we'll get through this,” Kilgore said. “And it's patience and compassion and understanding and empathy, that's what it takes.”