More 16 and 17 year olds in Fresno Unified are requesting work permits. But those entering the restaurant industry often face customers angry about supply shortages and slow service. Photo by Andre Hunter via

published on September 24, 2021 - 1:13 PM
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As restaurant owners continue to suffer labor shortages, increasingly they are finding help from underage workers looking to take advantage of staffing crunches and higher wages.

But one restaurateur says for many of those workers, the treatment they are getting from customers is making their first job experience nearly unbearable.

Lewis Everk, owner of Vyxn Restaurant and Lounge, Jugo Salad & Juice Bar and LUXS Kitchen in Fresno, published a video on Facebook of him having to shop at a grocery store to keep the kitchens at his restaurants stocked.

“A lot of smaller restaurants are getting customer complaints because of speed of service or out-of-stock items, but those things really are not indicative of their lack of management. We just can’t get the product and we can’t get the staffing,” Everk said in an interview.

A lot of customer complaints for restaurants originate with staffing shortages, said Everk. It’s no secret that businesses of all kinds have been clamoring for labor. Everk needs about 25 positions across his four restaurants. He’s had to cut back hours because of limited staffing.

“I’ve never had a time in my career where I had to wake up every morning hoping that all my openers to all my various restaurants showed up,” he said.

Many working-age teenagers are taking advantage of employers being willing to hire anyone and paying well over minimum wage — $18 an hour in some cases.

Requests for work permits for Fresno Unified School District are up. In the 2019/2020 school year, the district issued 2,047 work permits to 16-and-17-year-olds. That includes summer 2019.

By the second week of September — nearly a month into the current school year — work permits requests were already at 985, said Nikki Henry, chief communications officer for FUSD.

“At this point in the school year, [it] speaks to the likelihood of a big year in work permits,” Henry said.

Restaurateurs are thankful for the workers who have stepped up, said Everk. But they’ve come at a time when economic forces are making operating a business difficult and some customers have little patience.

“They’ve also stepped into a hornet’s nest,” said Everk of young employees. “It’s really discouraged some people, this being their first job. It’s really scaring some of those people off of employment.”

Brenda Budke, executive director of Sierra HR Partners, says when it comes to aggressive customers, this is the worst she’s seen in more than 25 years in the HR consulting industry. Before, there would be isolated incidents of customers being rude but now, considering the political climate, people are more openly expressing their frustrations and taking it out on staff. In some instances, she’s heard of restaurant guests fighting each other over issues such as masking.

For businesses suffering from short staffing, the instinct is to put workers out as quickly as possible, but Budke says that extra training is more important than ever, especially with younger people working their first job.

They might not have the experience to come up with the right responses, so business owners should take extra time to arm them with the right training.

Budke breaks it down to three things — teaching staff how to resolve and not escalate conflict, adding personal safety to food safety and coming up with a script for common customer complaints.

The first can be solved by teaching staff to put themselves in the shoes of customers and what they might expect if they were the customer.

Role playing is a good tool here where bosses can act as a belligerent guest and teach young workers what to say and what store policy is.

Personal safety is also important, as videos online show customers attacking staff physically. Food safety might make sure fingernails aren’t getting into the food, but also, “how do I make sure those fingernails aren’t coming out in an exchange of words,” Budke said. Coming up with a script can help protect a business’ reputation. That script can be developed through the use of role playing.

Finally, being in an environment like this can be overwhelming for those with a first job, and a boss can do well to remind a worker what the positives of having a job are.

“Let’s tell them what’s in it for them to persevere,” Budke said. “You want to show you have staying power and you can handle these day-to-day interactions with people who may have different views and aren’t as polite as you’ve had it at home. And don’t take it personally.”

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