What’s brewing in Texas? Labor down, tourism up

Employers discuss what’s brewing this summer for vineyards, bars

By Megan Wehring

DRIPPING SPRINGS – When Fitzhugh Brewing owner Kerbey Smith posted a job listing when the brewery opened last year, she only received four responses for interviews.

Smith is one of several employers who has grappled with pandemic-induced challenges, including recruiting new employees and keeping up with health regulations while running a business.

About 91% of restaurant operators have job openings that are difficult to fill, according to a National Restaurant Association survey, and most do not expect labor challenges to soften after the pandemic is over. The same survey also found that 93% of operators say recruiting and retaining employees could be even more difficult after the pandemic is over than it was before the pandemic started.

“It’s just about every operator that we work with has faced this challenge,” said Kelsey Erickson Streufert of the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA). “Restaurants really need to be scaling up and earning revenue that was essentially lost over the past year due to the pandemic. They are actually having to reduce hours because they are struggling trying to find enough employees to work.”

The restaurant and hospitality industries shed about 15% of the workforce during the pandemic when closures and capacity limits were required, according to Streufert. Many workers moved on to other industries, causing a greater challenge to recruit them back.

The TRA has seen the labor shortage increase wages and benefits for employees. Entry-level positions, like dishwashers and line cooks, are starting to get paid $14 to $16 an hour.

Fitzhugh Brewing, located in Dripping Springs, employees are promised a higher wage, Smith explained, that equates to close to $15 an hour with tips included.

“Most people are tipping a little better which is nice to see,” Smith said. “I think people realize we are doing our part as well. They wouldn’t have a fun place to go to get out of the house if we weren’t here. I think people are grateful for that.”

Several employers are increasing wages for entry-level positions. Photo courtesy of Vista Brewing.

Smith is anticipating more people to start looking for jobs, especially since Texas will no longer participate in pandemic-related unemployment compensation beginning June 26. This includes the $300 weekly unemployment supplement.

While she does have a full team right now, Smith is hoping to have a wider applicant pool soon in case positions open following high school graduation.

Susan Auler, founder of Fall Creek Vineyards in Driftwood, said she was able to retain her full-time staff during the pandemic and just recently started the search for the right people to join the team.

“We certainly need more associates,” Auler said. “I would love to hear from anyone that is wine knowledgeable that understands good hospitality.”

Auler added that with speciality events and harvest coming up in August, Fall Creek Vineyards needs additional staff that understand the product they are promoting.

Streufert concluded that there is not a simple solution to the labor shortage issue, rather there are various pieces that need to be addressed.

Breweries and wineries are also gearing up for the upcoming summer as they anticipate even more revenue from tourism.

“Texas gets so hot and people don’t want to be out and about,” said Karen Killough of Vista Brewing in Driftwood. “They go on vacations. It will be interesting to see how this summer plays out. People are traveling more and we are going to start seeing those tourists back and see those strong summer sales.”

John McIntosh, owner of Acobon Brewing in Dripping Springs, agreed that sales will increase as more people are willing to go out in public.

“Business has picked up,” McIntosh said, “especially as more and more people are vaccinated and feeling safe and comfortable going out. There’s always caution but we are pretty optimistic that we are on the right track, getting back to normal and hopefully last year will just be a bad memory.”

Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent decision to permanently allow to-go alcohol sales in Texas has also helped, McIntosh added.

“When the shut down first started and capacity was limited going to HEB or any place like that, we had online sales and people would come by and pick up their beer to go,” McIntosh explained. “That’s kind of held over. People still come in and they may have a beer or two but they are much more likely now, because they have gotten used to it, to take a couple beers to go.”

Both Auler and Smith also anticipate steady foot traffic all summer long at their establishments.

“I think the best thing you can do [right now]is come together with family and friends and just enjoy the time you have with each other,” Smith told the Hays Free Press/News-Dispatch.

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About Author

Megan Wehring graduated from Texas State University in May 2020 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communication. Wehring has reported for the Hays Free Press/News-Dispatch for a year, covering all things local. This includes city council meetings, town events, education and human interest stories. Previously, Wehring worked at KTSW FM-89.9 (Texas State University's official radio station) for two consecutive years. She was a news reporter, assistant news director and monthly segment producer during her time at KTSW. Wehring is passionate about the local reporter aspect. With a heart for storytelling, she believes that journalists are equipped to share the stories that are most important to the community.

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