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Iowa restaurants suffer from one-two punch in workforce, with inflation

DES MOINES — Many of the challenges Iowa restaurants faced during the pandemic are behind us, but another perfect storm is brewing that’s creating havoc in the food service industry.

Iowa Restaurant Association CEO and president Jessica Dunker says finding reliable workers is just one of the major hurdles they’re now trying to cope with.  “At just the time we’re trying to get back up and running at pre-COVID levels, we’re facing an average of 15% increase in labor costs and 15% increase in cost of goods on the products we use to create those great experiences,” Dunker says. “We’ve never seen inflation hit in both directions like that.”

While revenues for some restaurants are up, she says in many cases, profits are down. The association is addressing the issues with its members, trying to help them ride the waves.  “Some of the things that we are recommending is size down the menus so that you can have quantity of scale on the products that you serve,” Dunker says. “From the consumer experience, what that translates into is some of your favorite novelties might not be available on menus.”

She also recommends restaurant owners brainstorm to find ways to make due with smaller staffs, while being prepared to raise wages. While one in three Iowans of a certain age will say their first job was in the restaurant industry, Dunker says it’s no longer the case for the new generation. The industry is struggling to find younger workers, droves of whom are now being lured by a host of other entry-level jobs in areas where restaurants never before had to compete.  “Also, pre-COVID, workers that were aged 55 and older were our fastest growing work demographic and that pool of people is not coming back to our industry,” Dunker says. “They simply have left the workforce or they’re not coming back into restaurants and we miss those workers.”

She implores Iowans to, “Be patient, be kind, and still come out to appreciate and enjoy all the hospitality scene has to offer.” 

Dunker is a native of Mason City.



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