Southern Star in Chattanooga is moving to takeout only, other restaurants are reducing operations in response to a tight job market

After 21 years serving Southern favorites to diners seated at Southern Star, the downtown restaurant is changing its operations in response to an ongoing labor shortage in the restaurant industry.

Following in the footsteps of many other traditional restaurants, the Southern Star is turning to a fast-food and buy-and-hold model after struggling to keep a waiting staff.

“Like everyone else in the restaurant business, we’ve been hiring for two years non-stop,” said Nancy Adams, chef and owner of Southern Star. “We’ve decided instead of trying to ‘make it work’ for longer, we’ll just have to change the way we work.”

The downtown restaurant, which began in 2000 in a small store across from Chattanooga Choo Choo, has been running for the past 14 years on Broad and 13th Streets, serving both takeout and takeout. During the pandemic, Southern Star has had to rely solely on take-out sales, but over the past year the restaurant has tried to offer traditional table service and business hours.

After struggling to find enough workers to serve the table, Southern Star this week switched to pickup or delivery only at its downtown location.

“We can never find enough people to work,” Adams said. “So we’re moving on to a more intuitive concept, similar to what we did at the Signal Mountain site.”

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Chattanooga restaurant reorganization

With unemployment rates at or near historic lows, filling restaurant stores emerging from the pandemic has proven to be a problem for many restaurants who are forced to limit their seats, reduce their hours or, in some cases, close completely due to a shortage of workers.

A study conducted by Deloitte Consulting last year into the future of restaurants found that dining out has emerged as an enduring tool for many traditional diners with 61% of consumers saying they order takeaway or delivery at least once a week, up from 18% before the pandemic.

“The staggering strikes of the pandemic and now the inflationary economy are limiting the operations of the industry,” Shaun Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs for the National Restaurant Association, said in a recent industry report.

Mojo Burrito, who used to operate four restaurants in St. Elmo, Ooltewah, East Brainerd and Red Bank, have indefinitely disabled their last remaining unit on Dayton Boulevard after struggling for years to find enough workers.

Mimi’s Deli opened a grill on Hixson Pike last November, but closed the restaurant a few months later when it couldn’t find enough workers to keep it running.

“We had a lot of problems getting enough staff, so we had to close this restaurant and focus more on our prepared foods here,” said Julie Crawford, one of the restaurant’s managers.

Figures released Thursday by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development show that total employment in food service and accommodations has jumped 13.1% in the past 12 months from pandemic lows last year, adding another 35,300 jobs in restaurant and related industries across Tennessee last year.

But even with these gains, there are still many vacancies. Tennessee Job Centers Thursday listed 470,188 open positions across the state of volunteering on the state’s job site, jobs4tn.gov. That’s more than four job openings for each of the 102,137 Tennessee residents who were counted last month as unemployed but still looking for work.

Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Projects Over the next decade, employment in the food and accommodation industries will grow at twice the pace of all industries, requiring 42,153 additional workers over the next decade.

The food service industry is the second largest private sector employer in the country, with more than 14 million employees nationwide, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to the State of the Restaurant Industry 2022 report from the National Restaurant Association, nearly half of operators expect that hiring and retaining employees will be their biggest challenge in 2022.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter Hahahaha.

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