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For West County Restaurants, the Jobs Are Plentiful, But the Workers Are Few

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When Steve Marzette arrives at a Maplewood bus station on a cold weekday October morning, he has already been in transit for more than an hour.

First, the 95 MetroBus from Penrose Park to the Central West End. Leaves at 6:58 a.m. Then the westbound MetroLink from the Central West End to Maplewood. Leaves at 7:26.

He's going to catch the bus from Maplewood to Ellisville at 8:05. By the time he arrives at his job at the Pasta House there, Marzette will have been on the road for two hours. On the way home, he catches his first bus at 3:26 p.m., and gets to his doorstep at 5:30.

Six days each week, Marzette, 59, spends four hours on public transportation.

It gets to him, he admits. But, he says, "I can't do nothing about it. Ain't got no car."

He makes $9 an hour as a dishwasher.

Once he gets home, Marzette says, "I relax, look at the TV, be with my lady. Don't come outside until the next morning. I live in a pretty rough neighborhood."

He chuckles. Penrose Park is located in a part of north St. Louis that has a high rate of violent crime. In May, two children were among four people wounded in a shooting just blocks from Marzette's home.

"Bullets go flying. It's something else. Everybody got a gun now," another passenger volunteers.

When the bus leaves from Maplewood, each seat is filled. The majority of passengers, including Marzette, are black and 90 percent of them work in fast food, Marzette posits. You can tell by the black pants.

They are part of a workforce that travels from the city to restaurant jobs in west St. Louis County — a workforce that is too small to keep the restaurants adequately staffed. Some restaurants have closed or shortened their hours. Owners and managers have met to try and come up with solutions.

In the meantime, they rely on people like Marzette. And he relies on his job for the paycheck. Nevermind that it requires a four-hour commute for what economists say is not a livable wage. It's a strained arrangement that's not ideal for either side.

In July, the owners of the Greek Kitchen, a popular Ellisville restaurant, posted on Facebook that they were closing the business.

"We have worked very hard to make our restaurant a cozy and inviting place for all to enjoy but for the last year we have had a very difficult time getting staff to help in the kitchen," wrote co-owner Joe Kandel. "As recent as the last couple of months Lisa and I have been very short staffed having to be on grill, make the food, and trying to take care of the day to day business."

People left 169 comments and shared the post 41 times. "The food, hospitality, and service are terrific," one wrote, "but the best part has always been how much your food makes me feel like I was at my Nana's table!!!!"

Ellisville is a suburb about a 30-minute drive west of St. Louis. Its median household income of $74,074, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compares to $40,346 in the city. Ellisville Mayor Adam Paul has been a vocal opponent of a proposed merger between the city and county. He told St. Louis Public Radio that residents of Ellisville don't want "a socialism-type government on the local government." The non-binding measure Paul put on the April municipal ballot to oppose such a merger drew 81 percent support. The city also hired a lobbyist in Jefferson City to oppose such a merger.

Like it or not, though, Ellisville is dependent on the broader metro region for at least one critical thing: hourly workers. After closing, Greek Kitchen co-owner Lisa Nicholas told St. Louis Magazine, "I think the reasons why we — and many businesses in Chesterfield, Wildwood and this west-county area — can't get restaurant help is that a lot of restaurant workers come from the city and farther east. They are taking buses or driving 45 minutes to work, and it's just not worth it for them. There are lot of kids out here, but they just don't want to work in a restaurant."

The West St. Louis County Chamber of Commerce debates issues of public transportation. - ERIC BERGER
  • ERIC BERGER
  • The West St. Louis County Chamber of Commerce debates issues of public transportation.

Enough restaurant owners in the area acknowledged having the same problem that the West St. Louis County Chamber of Commerce decided to hold a forum to discuss the shortage. More than twenty people in the restaurant industry attend the meeting, held in late August at the St. Louis County library branch in Ellisville. Many of them point to lack of public transportation as a primary reason for the shortage.

A recent Apartment List study relying on U.S. Census data found that more than 24,000 St. Louis-area residents travel more than 90 minutes to get to work daily — an 89 percent increase from a decade ago. Those commuters are far more likely to be users of public transit. While 95.8 percent of commuters drive to work in the St. Louis area, only 68 percent of so-called "super commuters" do so. In many cases, these appear to be residents of the city, and of less affluent suburbs, relying on buses to get them to jobs in west county.

"We have a guy who works at Circa STL who it takes two and a half hours, one way," Tim Walsh tells people at the chamber of commerce forum. Walsh is managing officer of the Des Peres restaurant, which focuses on classic St. Louis dishes. "When he's working nights and I'm there doing whatever, I offer to take him home ... It's out of the way but it saves him two and a half hours of riding the bus, and hopefully it gets to where he realizes we're trying to do something to help him stay at the restaurant."

Lori Kelling, president of the chamber, relays that the owner of Walnut Grill in Ellisville told her he has an employee whose car went kaput and who now spends six hours on the bus each day.

The other source of labor for the restaurants, many say at the forum, is local teenagers. One person suggests a job fair at the schools. Another person says schools should give out awards to students for their paid work rather than just for grades or involvement with clubs or sports.

But Walsh says Parkway South High School already asked him to participate in a job fair for students. The restaurant made toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake, he says, "in the hope that some of the kids at the school would say, 'Hey, we want to come there and work for you."

"Not one person came to the restaurant," he says.

The meeting to find solutions quickly devolves into a conversation about how things aren't the way they used to be.

"The kids today, there is no need to have a job because mom and dad take care of them," says Walsh. He turns to a representative from the Philly Pretzel Factory in Ballwin. "You mentioned how some kid pulls up in a Maserati to work at your restaurant —"

"To get pretzels," the rep clarifies.

"To get pretzels," Walsh says. "They don't need a job."

"He's a good guy, works hard," says chef Paul Reynolds of Marzette. - ERIC BERGER
  • ERIC BERGER
  • "He's a good guy, works hard," says chef Paul Reynolds of Marzette.

Walsh is right. Fewer people do need jobs at restaurants. In August, the hospitality industry across the U.S. had 762,000 openings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That compares with fewer than 200,000 openings during the Great Recession.

The National Restaurant Association reported in October that 52 percent of restaurant operators consider recruitment and retention of employees to be their top problem. Again, that compares with less than 5 percent in 2009.

The main reasons that people say they like working in restaurants, according to the restaurant association, are that the jobs provide flexibility and are close to where they live.

"So in a tight labor market, there are some operators that have stepped up their transportation solutions," says Hudson Riehle, the association's senior vice president of research.

Boloco, a fast-casual burrito chain, started offering a transportation benefits program in 2012. Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, cities where the average restaurant worker can't afford to live near the high-end restaurants, have ordinances that require businesses with a certain number of employees to offer commuter benefits.

Sam Garanzini, senior vice president of Pasta House, says he is considering offering bus passes to employees making the commute from the city to its locations in west county.

But the company would only offer it to employees in particular scenarios, he adds.

"It's not a policy that I'm going to wave in front of everybody," says Garanzini, who has worked for the local Italian chain for 50 years. "Because the next thing you know you'll have somebody taking a bus two blocks to get to work just so they can have a bus pass in their pocket. So it's going to be a policy that's used on an individual basis, as needed."

And even if Pasta House begins offering free bus passes, that only solves part of the equation for employees. Long commutes are still a problem.

In 2019, Metro Transit, which operates buses and rail in St. Louis and parts of southern Illinois, will launch its "Metro Reimagined" plan, which aims to offer "shorter waits. Faster trips. Better connections." Metro is thinking about food-service employees traveling from the city to the county, says executive director Jessica Mefford-Miller.

"While there are routes that get someone from the city to the west county for a job, depending on the attractiveness of that job, the pay, the schedule, if it's a part-time minimum wage, individuals may be hard-pressed to spend in excess of an hour to get there," Mefford-Miller says.

For the Maplewood-Wildwood route that Marzette uses, Metro is proposing to operate every 30 minutes until 9 p.m. For the most part, that would increase the frequency by ten minutes from the current schedule.

It's also planning to pilot a "microtransit" program featuring minibuses that operate based on demand, with customers requesting rides on an app.

The microtransit "could potentially operate in west county — though that's a pretty large geographic area," says Mefford-Miller. A more dense jobs center like Hazelwood is more likely. Even if the program gets implemented, it might not make a difference for Marzette or Pasta House.

Steak 'n Shake is typically open for 24 hours a day. Except, that is, in Ellisville, where it's only open until midnight. "Even the restaurants [in west county] that are scheduled to be open for 24 hours, aren't always open," says Mike Niblett, who has been a district manager at more than six Steak 'n Shake locations and now is a franchisee for one.

A lack of easy public transportation is a primary reason for the labor shortage, he agrees. Ninety percent of his employees in Ellisville come from the city, he says. And the large majority of them take the bus.

Niblett would like to offer better benefits and pay to his employees.

"I just took over in March, and I have been fighting the battles to pay more, and I've won the battles, but it takes emails and talking to the boss ... unfortunately, I think corporate America makes it a little difficult to do the right thing," he says. "It makes it harder to hire people, so you end up with warm bodies, and that usually doesn't work out very well."

That doesn't mean he supported Proposition B, the statewide ballot measure to increase Missouri's minimum wage over time to $12 an hour. The initiative sailed to victory, with 62 percent approval. Beginning next year, the minimum wage in Missouri will see small but steady increases from its current rate of $7.85 per hour.

"In the short run, it would help fast-food workers and such; in the long run, I don't think it will help because those jobs will go away for automation, kiosks," Niblett says in the month before the vote. "There's a place for minimum-wage jobs if you are first starting off in the workforce."

The West St. Louis County Chamber of Commerce, which organized the restaurateurs' meeting, did not take a stance on the ballot measure, says Kelling, the president.

Greek Kitchen owners Lisa Nichols and Joe Kandel moved their restaurant closer to the city and found a "50-fold" increase in job responses. - TOM HELLAUER
  • TOM HELLAUER
  • Greek Kitchen owners Lisa Nichols and Joe Kandel moved their restaurant closer to the city and found a "50-fold" increase in job responses.

After closing the Greek Kitchen in Ellisville, co-owner Joe Kandel ran a test ad seeking servers on Indeed.com and Craigslist for a new restaurant in Kirkwood, which happens to be significantly closer to the city and its labor pool. The response would determine whether he and Nicholas would actually reopen in the mid-county suburb.

He received more than 90 responses. And so in August, the partners decided to open a new Greek Kitchen at 343 South Kirkwood Road.

So far, they say, it's been a big success. "There are nights where people can't get in because it's so crowded," Kandel says.

As to the staffing side of the equation, Kandel says, the response to any job ad is "50-fold" what he got in Ellisville.

"We have a great core. We just need one more person, but they are doing great," he says.

Like the Pasta House, the Greek Kitchen also had an employee, Faith, who made a two-and-a-half-hour trek to Ellisville from the city. Her commute is now 30 minutes shorter.

"She is still with us and a very loyal employee," Kandel says.

Despite the low pay and the long commute, Marzette says he likes his job at Pasta House. He has been with the restaurant for three years; prior to that he did tuckpointing and worked at the Steak 'n Shake in Chesterfield.

The environment at the restaurant, he says, is "real pleasant, real nice." He has received "employee of the month" awards a number of times.

"He's a good guy, works hard," says Paul Reynolds, a chef at the Ellisville location who has been with Pasta House for 30 years.

Some days, Marzette gets a ride to work from a coworker, which shortens his commute by a full 90 minutes.

On the seventh day, he cleans his house. Still, he seems to savor small things, like the fact that the bus stop is right outside his house. "It's a blessing. It's a blessing," he says.

Sitting on the bus leaving Maplewood that October morning, it's almost silent. Marzette says that's unusual; it gets loud. It's one of the first cold days of the year, so that may have something to do with it.

Or it may be something else.

A fellow passenger says to Marzette, "Don't you know that big lady who used to drive the bus?" Marzette nods.

"Yeah, she died," the passenger says. Other passengers have also heard the news, but they are unsure of her name.

Crystal Chrisp, 46, had spent eighteen years as a Metro bus driver. She was battling cancer and committed suicide, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. A few weeks earlier, she sent a letter to Stray Rescue of St. Louis, asking them to adopt her dog.

"I've been fighting cancer for a few months, and if you're reading this I lost my battle," the letter stated.

Marzette estimates he rode on her bus a thousand times.

The passenger who broke the news says, "She shot herself, man. It shows you can have a good job and still have problems."

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