I own 2 Hamptons hot spots that are busier than ever – but the worker shortage is crushing us

Zach Erdem seated at his Southampton restaurant Blu Mar.
seated at his Southampton restaurant Blu Mar. Zach Erdem
  • Zach Erdem is the owner of 75 Main and Blu Mar, two eateries in Southampton, New York.
  • Since reopening in June, Erdem says he’s struggled to find workers despite increasing the hourly pay.
  • Here’s what hiring has been like for him post-pandemic, as told to freelance writer Jenny Powers.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This summer has been busier than ever, and while it’s wonderful to finally be able to reopen our doors to full capacity and welcome our guests back, there’s a major caveat – it’s been virtually impossible to find enough staff.

Between my two restaurants, I have 87 people on staff. In an ideal situation, that number would be 100. But some of my staff weren’t interested in returning once we reopened – they told me they’d rather stay home on unemployment. I’ve had no choice but to seek out additional help.

I recently spent $2,000 posting job listings on Indeed and only received 10 resumes.

Prior to the pandemic, I never had to post jobs. People would just come in looking for work.

The people of Southampton have long supported me, so I always look to hire from within the community. I’ve also been known to approach customers I think would be a good fit to see if they’re interested.

These days, the tables have been turned and the employees feel like the real bosses, calling the shots in terms of how much they want to get paid and telling me when they want to work. My hands are tied in many instances; I have to do it if I want to keep operating.

In an effort to keep my staff in place and attract more talent, I increased the hourly pay, but I still can’t find enough people.

Last year, our dishwashers made $15 to $16 an hour; now it’s $19 to $22. Busboys, servers, and bartenders make $10 an hour plus tips and hostesses make between $18 to $30 based on their experience. Last week alone, some bussers took home $2,000 while some servers took home $5,000, because we’re busier than ever.

When it comes to hiring hostesses, I have three main criteria.

They must be fluent in English because they are representing our front of house and interfacing with everyone who walks through our doors; they must be familiar with POS (point of sale) systems to handle takeout orders and reservations; and they must be able to smile despite whatever may be going on. That last one is sometimes the hardest part.

Being in a front-of-house role is a tough job, especially these days now.

People are impatient and often it’s the hostess that will get the brunt of it.

Customers will yell and scream and complain, but we have to just grin and bear it. Last week I had a hostess burst out in tears and run into the kitchen. It’s not easy.

I insist on personally interviewing every hire down to the dishwasher.

I ask hypothetical questions that will allow me to get a snapshot of the type of person they are, like if they were free and a manager texted them to come in on their day off, what would they do? Their responses factor into whether I’d hire them, since I want a staff of team players who see this job as more than just a paycheck. At the end of the day, we spend more time at work than at home sometimes, so we have to work as a team.

I live above the restaurant and with the exception of the hour I take to exercise on the beach in the morning, I’m pretty much always at work.

Despite all the craziness, my favorite time in the Hamptons is still between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

I’ve been in the restaurant industry since 2002 when I first walked through the doors of Southampton’s 75 Main at the age of 21 and was hired on the spot as a dishwasher.

I myself rose up the ranks from dishwasher to busboy, then server and bartender to finally, manager. In 2010, I bought 75 Main from the owner who had originally hired me.

Sometimes I still can’t believe it, considering in 1994 I was living in my home city of Erzincan, Turkey, working as a shepherd and had never set foot on American soil.

Although I’m the owner now, I’m still running around, doing whatever needs to get done, including bussing tables. I’m happy if I get four hours of sleep a night.

A long time ago I vowed whatever I did, I would be the best at it, and you don’t become the best by sitting around watching everyone else work.

This month, we’re shooting a TV pilot inside 75 Main so people can see what it’s really like to work inside a restaurant like ours. It was one of our customer’s ideas. This place has all the elements of a movie: comedy, action, entertainment, and plenty of drama.