dining

Diners settle in for an outdoor meal in August in Great Barrington. The author says that if the restaurant industry is a house of cards built on overworked, grossly underpaid staffs, then a new foundation is required to shore it up so customers can enjoy the summertime.

LENOX — At the risk of flying the “Mission Accomplished” banner prematurely, it may be safe to consider whether the coronavirus pandemic is now an apparition in the rearview mirror, at least in the Berkshires and the rest of widely vaccinated New England.

You can tell from the heavy traffic on our roadways: Locals are out and about, visitors and part-time residents are back in full force, even before the height of the season, hotels and inns have been filling up with reservations hard to come by for prime summer weekends. Airbnb and other online bookings are at full throttle.

Diners are flocking to restaurants in happy pairs and groups, both on patios and indoors, and conviviality is on full display. But, the dining-out industry is in upheaval, at least temporarily. The staff shortage is acute, though it may ease a bit now that local students are out of school and college. Days and hours of operation are curtailed. Prices are rising. The supply chain, especially for beef and chicken, has short-term bottlenecks.

“We’re paying everyone more, and our profits are even less than they were before, which were low,” says Paul Turano, who owns restaurants in Boston’s western suburbs. “Things have just gotten so insane.”

There’s some good news for beleaguered restaurateurs and their staffs: Gov. Charlie Baker has signed a bill extending certain pandemic policies. Restaurants are permitted to sell cocktails, wine, and beer to go through May 1, 2022. Takeout and delivery drinks must be sold at the same prices as those consumed on-site.

Special permits for expanding outdoor dining, which would have expired in mid-August, are now valid until April 1, 2022. They should be made permanent. Outdoor dining expanding onto patios and portions of sidewalks has taken Berkshire County by storm. But, safety concerns must be considered for pedestrians, motorists and emergency services vehicles; designated “dining parks” are ideal wherever possible.

The deep-seated problems making restaurant work unappealing for many current and future employees remain entrenched. Here are a few suggestions for improvements:

• Home delivery and takeout of restaurant-cooked meals are becoming a fixture, but delivery fees charged by third parties take a big bite out of meager profits and need to be capped.

• Customers may have to accept higher menu prices for a while, in order to accurately reflect rising food and staff costs.

• Tipping, which should be at least 20 percent of the check’s bottom line, needs to be pooled with “back-of-house” employees making only slightly above minimum wage in the kitchen. Massachusetts law forbids management to require tip-sharing, except among waiters, food runners and service bartenders. Certainly, employers and managers should be excluded from gratuities, as the law requires. But, the inequity that leaves out cooks and dishwashers, among others, needs to be addressed.

• Below “executive chef” level, line cooks and others in the kitchen often are paid only several dollars an hour above minimum wage (currently $13.50 in Massachusetts). That’s the main reason the “back-of-house” staff shortage is so acute. Employers will need to increase the pay so they can return to pre-pandemic schedules. That is, if they can afford to and are willing to pass along some costs to patrons.

• Diners will have to be more patient with neophyte waitstaff learning the menu and the wine list, as well as with longer-than-usual delays for on-site dining or prep time for takeout orders.

• The minimum wage for Massachusetts employees who make more than $20 a month in tips is $5.55 an hour. Servers in high-end restaurants can do very well, but where menu prices are lower, it’s a different story.

To acquire enough waitstaff, owners may have to raise the minimum, and offer more flexibility and advance posting of schedules for workers with child care issues or responsibilities for senior family members. Consider at least a $15 minimum wage, plus shared tips for everyone below management level.

• Staff shortages should not be blamed solely on enhanced unemployment benefits, which were well-justified during the pandemic and will disappear in September. There are hostile work environments in some places, burnout is a factor, and most of all, the wage gaps within an establishment are intolerable. Remember, restaurant staffers can’t work from home and they’re often not eligible for paid time off, sick leave, health insurance and other benefits taken for granted in other fields.

• If diners are disappointed by their experience at an eatery, instead of posting a nasty, hurtful review online, take a few breaths and talk to the owner or manager. Kindness reaps rewards.

The bottom line: Some owners claim the restaurant industry has been a broken system, even pre-pandemic. In certain areas, much of the workforce is undocumented, with fearful immigrants lacking leverage or agency to address inequities.

If the industry is a house of cards built on overworked, grossly underpaid staffs, then a new foundation is required to shore it up so customers can enjoy summertime, when the living is supposed to be easy but remains a struggle for those who labor long and hard to support themselves and their families.

Information from The Boston Globe and State House News Service was included in this report.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of

The Berkshire Eagle.