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MAKING A WAY: Mystic Grill owner details impact of staff shortages felt nationwide
mystic grill short staff sign
Pictured is a sign placed outside Mystic Grill in Covington to remind patrons that the restaurant — like others across the area and nation — are still struggling to maintain a full staff. (Taylor Beck | The Covington News)

Thirty minutes to an hour. 

It could be the time one waits for a table, or the amount of time before their food is served. Maybe a little less, or maybe a little longer. Nonetheless, it’s a time no one really wants to hear when they’re hungry.

But that timeframe has become a temporary normal as the food service industry, like several other industries across the nation, are still reeling from the pandemic and struggling to maintain a full staff. 

As of Wednesday, more than 233,000 job opportunities were listed on the state’s “EmployGeorgia” website. Approximately 200 jobs were related to the food service industry.

Angie Bezborn, owner of Mystic Grill, has become all too familiar with running a restaurant shorthanded, which has put her faith to the test.

“I’m back to working seven days a week,” she said in an exclusive interview with The Covington News. “But, you just do what you got to do.”

The iconic restaurant known for being featured on the hit TV series “Vampire Diaries” was operating with just more than half of its regular serving staff, Bezborn said Wednesday, leaving about 1/3 of server positions unfilled. She said the shortage has made things difficult over the last few months, but the staff has worked diligently to see customers feel little impact.

“Of course it makes the wait time to be seated longer, and that sometimes makes the wait time for the food longer,” Bezborn said. “It’s been trying, but it’s just one more thing left over from COVID, I guess. We learned to do a lot of things differently during that time — rethink and restructure a lot of things. So, this is just one more bump in the road, but you just do what you’ve got to do. If you need to wash dishes, you wash dishes. If you need to cook, you cook. If you need to wait tables, you wait tables. Because the last thing you want to do is have your guests suffer for it.” 

Bezborn was proud of her employees who’ve continued to show up everyday and put in many hours to help keep the restaurant’s doors open. She said there had been some days when only three servers were present to run the entire restaurant. 

The shortage has also led to the restaurant’s popular rooftop seating to remain closed. However, she’s excited to see the turbulent time coming to an end.

“It’s been tough, and the workers I do have are tired — we’re all tired — but there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Bezborn said. “We’re starting to get applicants, so it’s starting to break loose and there’s some new people coming in.

“I knew that we just had to hold on for a while, but I just wasn’t sure what ‘a while’ was going to be,” she added. “It’s been tiring, trying and difficult, but it’s all part of the business. You can’t be happy and have it great all the time. You can’t be perfect — it will never be perfect… We coasted there for a while, you know. Everything was going good, but then COVID came and just — but you know, that’s when your faith steps in. You can’t see it, it looks like everything’s just going the wrong way, and you just have to put your faith to practice.”

Bezborn believes the biggest reason for the staff shortages felt nationwide was due to not only the novel virus, but the increased, extended unemployment benefits available and stimulus money as well.

“I don’t blame anybody,” she said. “I get it and everything. But my question to some of these folks that were working for me but then decided to do that was, ‘What are you going to do when that runs out?’”

The restaurant owner said she encouraged all of her employees to secure their positions rather than taking the benefits, because they might regret it later.

“What I told them [was], I would secure a position in a good establishment where you’re being paid well and you’re being treated well, because some restaurants didn’t open back up, and all the cream is going to rise to the top,” she said. “At some point, these places are going to be able to pick and choose, and they’re going to pick and choose the people who are showing up, showing up on time, giving it their all, following the rules — those kinds of things. There’s not going be room for everyone if you’re not going to be fully committed to your job. What are you going to do then?”

Since the pandemic began, jobless Americans were eligible to receive $600 boost to their unemployment benefits, which was later reduced to a $300 boost. Gov. Brian Kemp announced in May that the boost would be no longer available to Georgians beginning June 26.

Putting an end to the increased unemployment benefits could be the solution, but Bezborn said there was really no way to be sure.

“I really don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this; I don’t think anybody has.”

In addition to staffing issues, Bezborn said minor changes were made to the menu to compensate for a different kind of shortage.

“We haven’t been running any features lately because we’re so heavily impacted by the tourists, so we make sure we stay as stocked up as possible,” Bezborn said. “And that’s another thing. Some of the purveyors are not able to get the product, so we have to all kind of come together and go, ‘OK, they don’t have this, this or this, this week, so what are we going to have in place of it?’ Or, ‘what are we going to do?’ … It’s a lot going on.”

But despite all the adversity, the restaurant’s workers have placed a renewed focus on quality customer service in light of the pandemic, Bezborn said.

“[Someone once said], ‘People might not remember what you said to them, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel,’” Bezborn said. “So, we just really try to push customer service, Southern hospitality [and] talk to people. Sometimes with tourists and out-of-town people, this might be their one time to eat at the Mystic Grill … but when they get here, we treat them like they’re the VIPs that they are, because if it weren’t for anybody — whether it’s a tourist or a local — I always tell my staff, the person who walks in that door, that’s who pays us.

“I also understand that people coming in are trying to get away from the outside world sometimes,” she added. “Maybe they’re experiencing some of this on a different level as well. So, it’s our job to win them over, just be friendly and go the extra mile.”

Bezborn said, unfortunately, some people don’t understand the impact staff shortages are having on local businesses. For that reason, she decided to place a sign outside the restaurant’s front door, at the corner of Clark Street and Hays Street, that states, “Sorry we are short staffed. Please be patient with the staff that did show up to work. Thank you.”

“Some people do understand and some people don’t. And I get it,” she said. “They came in here to get away from the world for a minute. I guess they were thinking things should be the same, but we all know nothing is the same.

“People just need to remember that everybody is going through this, Bezborn continued. “What ever happened to — you know, when we all got in this mess, it was like, ‘We’re all in this together!’ If they could just remember, we are all in this together. Everybody’s got something that’s not normal anymore. So if we could just all try to remember that, I just wanted to put a nice reminder out front.

“I think it would be just a much better world if everybody could remember just to always be kind, no matter what kind of day they’re having. And that’s what I always tell my staff.”