By mid 2021, business was picking up again at Herman’s Ribhouse in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Diners were sitting at the checkered-cloth-covered tables, the kitchen hummed, and overall things were feeling – well, more normal. But then owners Nick and Carrie Wright got hit with a new challenge: They were struggling to hire enough staff.
Before the pandemic, the couple had a list of people who hoped to work at their restaurant – many of them University of Arkansas students and graduates. But the pandemic meant there were fewer students, and fewer who wanted to work.
Sometimes, the couple had to close the restaurant because there were not enough employees for the night.
But then something happened – a series of kindnesses that show the power of a small business in a place where community runs deep. When a customer wrote a critical comment on Facebook about the restaurant’s service in October, some of the restaurant’s regulars banned together to refute it.
Then they took it a step further – regulars and lovers of the local restaurant volunteered their time to work shifts to keep the doors open and customers in. Nick Wright was shocked.
He remembers asking his wife “Carrie, are you serious?” She said, “Yeah, I’ve got a list so long, I would have to make a schedule.”
The History of Herman’s
Herman’s has been a community staple since 1964. Its menu spans steaks and ribs, omelets and smoked bologna sandwiches. Nick Wright has run the restaurant since 2000. He started as a dishwasher in 1996 and its previous owner taught him the ropes. Now, he and his wife operate the ribhouse together, with Nick cooking each night the restaurant is open and Carrie the hostess, he said. The restaurant brings in more than $1 million annually.
Like many restaurants and businesses, Herman’s was hit by the labor shortage. Since last year, business owners and operators have struggled to find people to work, especially hourly jobs. Many remain on unemployment benefits and others haven’t gone back to work for reasons such as childcare or fear of contracting the virus from working in a space so close to people, or a desire for a lifechange.
Many business owners and operators are feeling either “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” about the limited supply of qualified job candidates, according to a recent report from JP Morgan Chase Insights, which surveyed owners in November. What’s more, Black and Latinx business leaders are “significantly more concerned” than others.
The unemployment rate is falling overall. Though, the rate for Black Americans is more than two times the rate for white Americans (7.1% vs 3.2%) and it rose last month for Black women, according to the U.S Department of Labor.
Lending a hand
Over the last few months, local Fayetteville folks have worked shifts at Herman’s after their own jobs, allowing the restaurant to open on many days, though not all. Some volunteers have been Wallace Spearmon, two-time Olympic runner who lives in Fayetteville and Dr. Steven Whitelaw, a local chiropractor. Employees’ significant others and friends have worked shifts, too.
59-year-old Susan Bendure has been volunteering since the fall. She worked in restaurants when she was younger and has known the Wrights “forever” she said. The couple helped out her mom before she died, and visited her when she was in the hospital and rehab, Bendure said.
“Honestly, I would do anything in the world for Nick and Carrie, and I really do enjoy it,” she said.
Bendure, who also works as a volunteer full time at local charter school Haas Hall Academy, spends up to 12 hours a week serving, bussing, hostessing or anything else that helps the shift run smoothly. She likes that she interacts with people the entire time, is on her feet and can leave any stress behind when the shift ends. She keeps tips and accepts free meals.
Nick Wright said he tried to pay the volunteers – there’s still up to seven volunteers a week, he said. But most refuse. Many work full time jobs, and aren’t doing it for the money, he said. Most take tips, though, and the free meal.
A Dark Road With No Headlights
Navigating the last two years has been extremely stressful, Nick Wright said. “It’s like driving a car down a dark road with no lights on – you have no idea where you’re going or what’s going to happen,” he said. “Everything changes day to day.”
In the early days of the pandemic, the Wrights halted in-person dining when the local ordinances required them to. They switched to carry-out service, which was more successful than Wright thought it would be. But they still took a hit to their revenue.
Back then, they had to cut their staff from 18 to a handful of necessary folks to operate Thursday, Friday and Saturday – the “skeleton crew” as Nick Wright put it. They started to bring a van full of meals to different sub divisions to keep generating revenue, he said.
The two applied for government and local grants and received some funding, including from Barstool Sports’ small business fund called the Barstool Fund. He also knew he could turn to several local banks, which the couple have built relationships with, he said.
For years, the Wrights have formed strong connections with regulars – including the Tyson family, which owns Tyson Foods. They make donations, fundraise or lend a helping hand. They collect cash throughout the year to buy struggling families Christmas presents for their kids. But they refuse to put their name on donations because they don’t want the recognition.
“We try to do a lot for our community— we do as much as we possibly can,” he said. “It’s who we are.”
Things are starting to improve, Wright said, but the restaurant is not out of the woods yet. He’s still not getting enough applications to fill his restaurant with paid employees. But with the volunteers, he’s able to hang on.
“When you’re really down, that’s when you see who your real friends are, who the people who truly care about you are,” Wright said. “COVID did that for me – who my really good customers are, who my real friends are, the people who truly want to see us succeed, I know these things now.”
This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.