BLUE HILL, Maine — Despite having made an offer that he thought was too good to refuse, Phil LeBreton still needs a chef.
The general manager of Sandy’s Blue Hill Cafe, LeBreton pitched to one candidate an offer of $25 an hour plus a $2,000 signing bonus, but the man turned him down. LeBreton called it “heartbreaking.”
Sandy’s is among five eateries doing strong business in this Hancock County town since opening last summer, revitalizing the town restaurant scene, but four of them face a lack of skilled restaurant workers, and affordable housing on the Blue Hill Peninsula that is cramping their business’ growth.
“From restaurant owners and the chefs that I’ve heard around here, it seems harder to find people that actually want to work,” LeBreton said. “It’s really heartbreaking knowing that we could be open seven days a week and only have the staff to be open five days a week and only able to provide dinner service for four nights a week.”
“There is definitely a shortage of help,” said Loren Palermo, co-owner of Bay View Bakery, one of the five new places.
“That’s been an issue for us — not finding a lot of kitchen help, or a lot of people with experience, and losing staff, losing cooks,” said Kate Thurston, co-owner of The Thurston Co.
Lack of workforce and affordable housing is nothing new to nearby Bar Harbor, where the town council last month rejected a proposal that, if approved by voters, would have allowed businesses to build dormitory-style housing for their employees. But it is news in Blue Hill, given that it has much easier access than Bar Harbor to major county population centers such as Ellsworth.
The new restaurants find the lack of workers cramping their businesses’ growth.
Anneliese Riggall, owner of the Boatyard Grill, says she could be open past Labor Day weekend, her planned closing date for the season, and go well into September if she had more cooks or dishwashers.
Palermo said she got a break by hiring a cook who lives upstairs from her shop. “And he can never be late for work,” she said.
Thurston’s would be closed Wednesdays, after having lost two cooks, but Thurston said she found enough help to stay open that day.
Sandy’s could stay open every day of the week but is short a sous chef, dishwasher, waiter and an assistant manager, LeBreton said.
Of the five, only Siam Sky, 8 Mill St., hasn’t had difficulty attracting chefs or kitchen help, co-owner Vee Napapornpipat said. “Most [chefs] in this area don’t know how to cook Thai food anyway,” she said.
LeBreton said he pays his help well — $13 to $16 for wait staff and dishwashers, and at least $22 an hour for chefs. “Those are all great, great paying jobs,” he said.
Thurston said she has considered approaching George Stevens Academy, which has a culinary arts program, to secure more help. Riggall said she already has four GSA students working for her, out of her 16-member staff
“I know it’s difficult but people just have to be creative,” Thurston said. “They need to reach out, not just in this community but farther out on the peninsula.”