As pandemic restrictions loosen, tourists flock to Jack Sprat, a restaurant in Girdwood, Alaska. But like many businesses in resort towns, it's having trouble hiring servers as the economy rebounds.



Since the pandemic started, across the U.S., an estimated 110,000 restaurants closed their doors, either permanently or temporarily. Those that have reopened are having trouble finding wait staff, especially in remote tourist areas.

Emily Schwing reports from an hour south of Anchorage.


EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: Dinner service is in full swing at Jack Sprat. The small restaurant sits at the bottom of a ski hill in Girdwood, Alaska.

LINDSAY KUCERA: Chris, did you toss my tickets?

CHRIS: No, it's right here.

KUCERA: Thank you.

SCHWING: It serves fat and lean world cuisine. And head chef Lindsay Kucera's specials include a roasted beet galette and maple bacon creme brulee.

KUCERA: When quarantine first happened, you know, there were new rules and new restrictions. But people were expecting the same level of service from us. And we really needed a little grace.

SCHWING: Jack Sprat had customers, but it didn't have servers.

How many people do you know that just sort of were like, this industry is not that stable - I'm out - I'm going to go do something else?

KUCERA: A lot of people. Yeah, quite a few.

SCHWING: Thirty-eight people worked at Jack Sprat prior to the pandemic. Now there are only 22 employees. Other restaurants in the area had similar losses and with good reason.

GINGER PATAK: Working in a restaurant is not the easiest thing to do. People treat servers, like, not very good sometimes.

SCHWING: Ginger Patak waited tables for years until she was laid off in March of 2020 from a restaurant run by Girdwood's local ski resort. The layoff means she could spend hundreds of hours volunteering at the local fire department.

PATAK: For me, the fire department came just at the perfect time, perfect.

SCHWING: It helped her realize she was tired of relying on minimum wage and the tips.

PATAK: Once I was here for a few months, I was like, yeah, no, forget the restaurants.

SCHWING: Now she's a certified emergency medical technician, an EMT, and plans to go to paramedic school. So who will serve the people who come to ski, bike and hike when they eventually get hungry? According to the National Restaurant Association, hiring is recovering, but the total number of restaurant workers is still 14% below pre-pandemic levels.

And that means Jack Sprat restaurant owners Frans and Jennifer Weits see cars pull into their parking lot even on nights they can't open.

FRANS WEITS: Before the pandemic, we were open three lunches and seven nights a week...

JENNIFER WEITS: For almost 20 years.

F WEITS: ...Year-round. And now we're open five nights a week. So we're - we were at 10 shifts. Now we're at five shifts.

SCHWING: In order to lure potential employees, the Weits offer at least $15 an hour to experienced staff, $3 higher than the U.S. average. They've also implemented a new policy so that tips are shared between wait and kitchen staff.

F WEITS: It's on average about $30 an hour.

J WEITS: And I've noticed less of an us versus them, front of house, back of the house, which is sort of cliche in the industry.

SCHWING: The Weits have also taken on other problems made worse by COVID. A big one is housing, especially in a place like Alaska. It's both expensive and limited. So in addition to paying more, the Weits feel pressure to provide workers with a place to live. They've rented a four-bedroom house. And they had been considering buying property.

J WEITS: It'd take a lot of our personal retirement and funds to do that.

SCHWING: With the summer season now in full swing and a wave of vaccinated tourists on the way, they're still worried what they're offering employees won't be enough to help feed hungry guests.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Girdwood, Alaska.