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A Denver bar offered $2,500 bonus for new bartenders and still couldn’t find one

Fiona Arnold was trying for months to hire more staff for her cocktail bar, Room For Milly. She offered a $2,500 signing bonus and thought it would help.

DENVER — Fiona Arnold thought an incentive would solve her problem.

She’d been trying for months to hire more staff for her cocktail bar, Room For Milly, on Platte Street in downtown Denver. So she decided to offer $2,500 for a new bartender, also offering a $2,500 referral bonus for any member of her staff that brought the new employee in.

It didn’t work.

“Typically your reputation is why people want to come work, but every single place in Denver is short,” Arnold said.

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Arnold had been working on a generous benefits package for her employees. She offered a 401(k), paid sick leave and paid time off to full and part-time workers.

But she still couldn’t find enough staff to reopen her bar comfortably.

“We thought with all the pent-up demand it would be an amazing happy celebratory reopening. Well, it was until we had to close two days a week because we didn’t want to wear out our existing staff,” she said.

The issues Room For Milly is facing are not isolated. The Colorado Restaurant Association says restaurants and bars across the metro area are trying to offer unique incentives to find new staff.

“Unfortunately, a number of people left the industry during COVID when there wasn’t work and restaurants were shut down for indoor dining,” said Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association.

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“Restaurants can’t fully recover because they can’t open up fully. So, we’re seeing restaurants that aren’t able to open for all meals. We’re seeing restaurants that have to close for certain meals like lunchtime or close several days of the week just because they don’t have enough employees.”

Some restaurants have changed procedures, having people order their meals at the counter until they can hire enough servers to wait tables.

Other restaurants are taking the same approach as Room For Milly, offering incentives.

“We’re seeing people paid more than they ever have been,” Riggs said. “We’re seeing those salaries and hourly wages go up even more.”

“We’re seeing hiring bonuses. We’re seeing retention bonuses. We’re seeing health insurance and other benefits.”

Next Door Eatery in Westminster is offering a $1,000 signing incentive for all positions, including dishwasher, according to Riggs. The Denver Country Club is offering a $1,500 incentive for line cooks. Other restaurants offer bonuses for wait staff who stay with the organization for 60 or 90 days, she said.

“The difficult part is people are probably experiencing when they go back to restaurants slower service than normal and full sections that are closed,” Riggs said.

At Room For Milly, Arnold said she didn’t want to give up on her standards of service, so she decided to close the bar two days a week.

“Our lead bartender is doing prep work, he’s doing all the juicing, all the batching normally you would have it’s called a barback in this industry,” she said.

“Our managers step in and they fill the gap and they never get a day off…there’s only so long you can do that.”

Arnold believes it could take a few years for this help shortage to work itself out. She said she believes the food and beverage industry may have to adapt a bit to make it work.

“We need to start thinking about the prices we’re charging,” Arnold said. “Prices have to go up so that we can take care of our team the way we want to.”

Contact 9News Reporter Steve Staeger for tips about this or any story by e-mailing steve@9news.com

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