- As NYC bars reopened this summer, owners couldn’t hire enough workers to handle the crowds.
- Insider interviewed five NYC bar owners, managers, and bartenders about the labor shortage.
- Some employees are optimistic about the future of the city’s hospitality industry – others are not.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
During a night out in downtown New York City, bar lines have gotten so long that one will end where another begins, forming chaotic and impatient crowds.
“When things really started to pick up I found myself having to get behind the bar, and I should not be bartending,” Marisol Delarosa, a managing partner at The Brass Monkey said, laughing. “It took me a little while to get back into the swing of it.”
As New York City bars reopened to full capacity in late May, bar managers like Delarosa couldn’t find enough workers to handle the crowds suddenly pouring in. With the entire city hiring at once, demand for service workers quickly outpaced supply.
The Brass Monkey has about 60% of the staff it normally employs during the summer, while business is back to pre-pandemic levels. This forces some staff to volunteer for long shifts lasting through the night.
“People want the old New York back,” Chaim Dauermann, a manager at The Up & Up, a cocktail bar in Greenwich Village, told Insider. “The challenge for us has been being able to offer that to them while still being until recently very understaffed.”
The cause and effect of a dwindling applicant pool
When Delarosa first put out summer job postings in April, she got seven applicants with no real bartending experience. Usually, the popular bar would receive hundreds of applications in just a few days.
“If I were looking for a bartender two years ago, I’d probably wake up the next day to check and I’d have 50 to 100 emails,” said Jason Buffer, who hires staff for 230 Fifth, a rooftop bar by Madison Square Park. “This time around, I maybe get three or four, and maybe one of them has New York City experience that we’re looking for.”
Delarosa said that she doesn’t believe unemployment benefits are the sole reason fueling the shortage, and it’s not because of low wages – on busy nights, her staff can make hundreds of dollars an hour.
“I think there was also a real existential shift that people had during this time,” she said. “They wanted to do something different, or they wanted a different life.”
The dwindling applicant pool has caused some bars to hire staff with less experience, or even offer signing bonuses, according to Buffer.
Ali Martin, the head bartender at The Up & Up, said every employee has to be trained to do every job now – from hostessing or serving to bartending – in order to keep up.
A cautious optimism for the future
“I’m optimistic because I have to be,” Delarosa said. “It’s going to be a long haul to get things back to where they were.”
All five workers expressed some form of cautionary optimism, ultimately agreeing that the city’s hospitality industry may never be the same.
Brian Grummert, the owner of Subject on the Lower East Side, told Insider that employees have realized they want a better quality of life than many bars allow. He hopes that this will reinvigorate the industry and create a “new wave” of bartenders.
“They don’t want instability, they don’t want to work crazy hours anymore. They want their personal life back,” he said.
Buffer said 230 Fifth has replaced the need for more waitstaff with a self-serve system and scannable QR codes. “I think it’s just going to get more and more towards the digital side,” he said. “I think we’re going to have less and less sort of human interaction.”
Delarosa and Dauermann are both concerned that New York City is no longer accessible for new businesses or workers like it was when they moved to the city over fifteen years ago.
“I think it’s changed forever in a lot of ways and I worry,” Dauermann said. “I want New York to still be a city that people go to to be the best at what they do.”
“It might end up just being lots of chain restaurants and very few mom and pop shops and small businesses,” Delarosa told Insider. “Which is sad because that’s what makes New York City great. You don’t come here to go to Chick-fil-A.”