Milwaukee-area restaurants are opening despite the 'ridiculous' employee shortage. Here's how they're overcoming that challenge.

Cathy Kozlowicz
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
As Milwaukee-area restaurants are struggling to get enough employees, the owners and managers, especially ones who are just opening their restaurants, are using creative hiring techniques.

When David Weiss is working at his family business, Badger Burger Co., he runs around nonstop trying to cover many jobs at the same time. It is hard to take a day off; he works nearly 95 hours a week.

Customers have noticed. "You must really need help," many have commented.

His family opened a Richfield location of the restaurant in May 2020, and a Brookfield location in May. They wanted to open an Oconomowoc location in April, but that was delayed because of the difficulty in getting employees. Weiss hopes to have that location open in mid-July.

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"We have done everything (to get employees)," he said. "I have consulted with friends in the industry and said, 'What can we do to get through this?'"

According to a survey by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce in June, 86% of the businesses surveyed are struggling to hire workers.  

"It is very tough," Weiss said. He added he had to close his Brookfield location Tuesdays as that was the only way to give his staff a day off. 

 "Otherwise, they (his employees) would work seven days a week," he said.

Restaurants throughout the metro Milwaukee area are facing the same problem. Here is what they have done to help conquer the employee shortage to open or prepare to open their restaurants. 

Hiring on the spot

Prospective employees who call or stop in a restaurant looking for a job are likely to get an interview, a job offer and a start date on the spot.

With the shortage of employees, some restaurant managers and owners say they do not have much choice.

"We interview and make a decision right then and there and move on," said Mike Archer, CEO of Lou Malnati's Pizzeria. He said if he waits, he could lose the candidate to another job. "We had to change our process," he said.

His company is working to hire nearly 40 staff members for the Waukesha location, which is opening soon. He said he may need 10 to 20 additional employees for the Brookfield, Greenfield and Fox Point locations combined.

Archer said the process of reviewing applications and calling people a few days later is a thing of the past because of the post-pandemic employee shortage.

Chaz Hastings, who is opening a Mexican beer garden, restaurant, pizza, gelato and coffee shop in Sussex, said he plans to hire 20 to 30 people. His project has been repeatedly delayed, and he now expects to open after Labor Day. 

Like other proprietors, he plans to expedite the hiring process.

"We will put up a sign for open interviews and will hire them before they get another job," he said.  

Weiss said he is at the point where he will hire anyone who wants to work. He'll train people with no experience.

"Beggars cannot be choosers," Weiss said. He said he hates to put it like this, but, "If someone has a pulse, we will train," he said.

Trying to look on the bright side, he said there's an advantage to hiring people with no experience. "There are no bad habits to break," he said.    

'Attach on people's heartstrings'

When Oconomowoc's Mullen's Dairy Bar was opening, owner Adam Keepman said he wanted that location to be like Watertown's location: "To attach on people's heartstrings."

He said the Watertown location has a cute, historical charm with an old soda fountain, which is fitting as that location is celebrating 90 years. It has been easier to attract and retain staff in Watertown because employees want to be a part of that history.

He said he wants to bring that charm to Oconomowoc, as well.

The restaurant opened a week before Memorial Day weekend and needed to hire 20 employees. The hiring crisis is "ridiculous," he said.

When the Oak Creek branch of Crumbl Cookies opened in May, co-owner Court Hanks said that, needing to hire 60 to 70 employees, he had to hire on the spot. 

Now that he has that staff filled out, he can start to be more particular and doesn't necessarily need to hire on the spot.

Hanks said Crumbl Cookies has a culture of being a fun and entertaining place. 

"We built a reputation," Hanks said. Now, his customers ask about hiring opportunities.

"We developed quite a reputation that people liked the experience of coming here and people wanted to work here," said Hanks, who owns the business with Wes Henrie.

Hanks said he has regular postings at first and did some hiring on the spot, but not anymore.

Different recruitment techniques

In the past, it was sometimes enough to just post a sign at the restaurant when hiring. But now, managers and owners have to do more.

Archer, of Lou Malnati's, said that in addition to traditional marketing techniques, he is now using social media to reach a new audience.  

He added that he has seen success with text recruiting. He said with text recruiting, he creates an audience, age group, and he has access to text people with the job openings.  

"We have done some different hiring techniques," he said.

He is also trying to make jobs with Lou Malnati's more attractive, offering flexible work schedules and deeper employee discounts. 

Sustaining a family atmosphere

Hastings, who signed the franchise rights to open Big Boy restaurants in Wisconsin, said he is not worried about hiring for his new restaurant in Germantown. In fact, Hastings said he is overstaffed.

He and his business partner, Scott Carleton, plan to open Wisconsin Big Boy on July 14 at the site of the former Jerry's Old Town Inn in Germantown, which closed about a month ago. 

"I brought in a class of kids who did so well, understand their business and how to service. We are getting their siblings to work here. I know it is really difficult, but we have a team environment," he said. He said former employees keep coming back to work while they're in college and over the summer.

"Our team grows with us," he said.

Similarly, Keepman said the main thing helping him at Mullen's Dairy Bar is that he has had employees invest in the company and stay for years.

At Crumbl Cookies, Hanks said he helps his employees look to the future, with an eye toward success. "We talk about their ambitions, college or if they have culinary goals," Hanks said. "We establish goals with each of them and give them the tools." 

As a family business owner, Weiss, of Badger Burger, said that when he hires, he takes all his new employees under his "umbrella."

"As a strong family business, we know how valuable family is," he said. "I think we are a great company to work for. I worry about my staff as I know they have families, too."

"We care about the people we hire," Weiss said.

Cathy Kozlowicz can be reached at 262-361-9132 or cathy.kozlowicz@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @kozlowicz_cathy.