A short-staffed Denver chocolate restaurant raised wages to up to $15 an hour and started health benefits – but only half of the people invited for job interviews actually show up, its owner says

Phil Simonson, owner of Chocolate Lab, hands out food in restaurant.
Phil Simonson, owner of , says only half of people who set up interviews at the restaurant turn up. Chocolate Lab
  • Only half of people who set up an interview at the Chocolate Lab in Denver turn up to interviews.
  • Owner Phil Simonson said he wants to grow his workforce from five to up to 12 employees.
  • He’s hiked pay from $US11.75 ($AU16) to up $US15 ($AU21) an hour in some cases as an incentive for new hires, he said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Chocolate Lab, like a lot of restaurants around the US, is short-staffed. It’s running with just five workers, down from 16 before the pandemic, and needs reinforcements.

It’s hiring a mixture of servers and chefs, owner Phil Simonson told Insider. The problem is, only half of the people who set up interviews don’t actually turn up.

Two people work in the kitchen, including Simonson, while the other three are part-time servers, which doesn’t cover all the restaurants hours, he said.

Simonson, who founded the Chocolate Lab 11 years ago, is hiring between 10 and 12 workers.

As an incentive for job applicants, Simonson said he’s boosted his worker’s hourly wage across the board from $US11.75 ($AU16) an hour, and is paying $US15 ($AU21) an hour, plus tips, in some cases. He’s also started offering medical and dental health benefit packages to workers.

It’s still not enough for some people that apply. “A lot of people will set up an interview with you and they don’t even show up,” he said.

Average salaries for non-supervisory restaurant staff reached $US15 ($AU21) an hour in May, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Like many businesses in the US, the Chocolate Lab is suffering during a huge labor shortage. Some companies say the labor shortage is down to employees not wanting to work – whereas workers say they want better pay and working conditions if they’re to stick around for a job.

Simonson had to let all of his 16 employees go at the start of the pandemic to keep the business afloat, he said.

Once business picked back up this summer, he brought back five employees and hired two new staff members because a lot of the employees didn’t want to come back, Simonson said. Two employees then left the restaurant.

The workers that quit have left the hospitality industry for good, he said, adding that one of his former employees is now training to be a massage therapist.

Restaurant workers have been leaving the industry in droves, blaming low wages, poor benefits, and a lack of flexible working hours.

The Chocolate Lab has landed in a pool of debt since the pandemic struck in March 2020, after having none when it began, Simonson said.

He had to take more than $US100,000 ($AU137,682) in loans to cover operational costs, he said.

“If we get back to our normal services, I can pay it back in about six months. But if we don’t see pre-pandemic traffic we’re probably going to take a few years,” Simonson said.

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