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Short-staffed sports bars welcome football crowds

As football fans return to sports bars, owners are still struggling to find bartenders and servers.

DENVER — Blake Street Tavern hired 23 new people in the week leading up to the first regular-season football game of the year, but according to owner Chris Fuselier, nine of them never arrived for their first shift.

“If they don’t like an aspect of your restaurant, they know that every other restaurant in Denver is hiring and they’ll take you,” Fuselier said.

At the same time, he watched a record crowd gather at his bar and restaurant near Coors Field on Sunday. Fuselier said it set a sales record for a regular-season football Sunday.

“The business is phenomenal,” he said. “But as we keep trying to hire new people, we lose people.”

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Staff at Blake Street share tips in a pool, which increases the amount of money they earn significantly. With the $11.75 they receive as minimum wage in the city of Denver, Fuselier said on busier football days his staff can make upwards of $35 to $45 per hour with the added tips.

The tips come from patient customers, he said, who seem to understand the labor shortage and don’t mind the wait.

“We tell people ‘Hey, guess what, it’s going to be an hour, hour and a half long kitchen time,’ and they say, ‘That’s fine. We know you’re doing your best,’” Fuselier said.

Down the street at the smaller DNVR sports bar along Colfax, owner Mark Berzins said the neighborhood feel of his bar has also led to customers cutting staff slack for slower-than-normal service.

“The nice thing about being in the neighborhood bar business is that most of your people are neighborhood people, so they get it. They’re helpful. They’re tolerant,” said Berzins, who owns Little Pub Company, an ownership arm of 20 small neighborhood bars across Denver.

Berzins said he’s always had trouble hiring kitchen staff for his taverns with demand from nearby restaurants. But he said the challenge has moved to the front of house.

RELATED: Restaurants offer new incentives to get workers during labor shortage

“Several of our places around town, we can’t find enough front of the house staff to get open for lunch and dinner,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 28 years. Never had anything like it.”

The difference in smaller bars is that staff who usually wait on tables can move behind the bar to accommodate more people, he said. The pinch of the labor shortage hasn’t been as sharp for those small bars.

Both bars are also dealing with another shortage oddly related to the pandemic. They’re having trouble finding chicken wings to feed hungry football fans catching the game.

“Things got disrupted last year. The chicken market got disrupted,” Berzins said. “I have one guy who pretty much spends his week finding chicken wings around Denver. Like driving around to any place we can find them.”

“Hounds all the outlets, Costco, all of our grocery distributors – anyone who has wings," he said.

Yahoo News recently reported the chicken wing shortage is linked to increased demand for carryout wings during the pandemic, and linked to a winter storm in Texas that caused power outages at hundreds of chicken farms in the state. 

Fuselier said Blake Street Tavern has had to use a different wing provider for the last three months.

“We’re all out of chicken wings," he said. "The whole nation is out of chicken wings.”

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