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‘An Uphill Climb’: Square Businesses Grapple with Staffing Shortages

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Since students have returned to campus, long lines, reduced hours, and staff shortages have plagued Harvard Square eateries, mirroring broader trends in the restaurant industry caused by the pandemic.

Amid a national shortage in restaurant workers, Harvard Square businesses have been inundated with customers, causing stores to reduce their hours and discontinue online ordering as lines stretch out of their doors.

“Help wanted” signs adorn Harvard Square storefronts including Black Sheep Bagel Cafe, Clover Food Lab, Dig, The Hourly Oyster House, Insomnia Cookies, Kung Fu Tea, Playa Bowls, Russell House Tavern, Tatte Bakery & Cafe, and Topdrawer.

Despite posting roughly 1 million job openings this March, the U.S. restaurant industry had 1.7 million fewer jobs filled in May than before the pandemic, per The Washington Post.

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Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage owner Joshua S. Huggard said he has struggled to hire new employees. After unsuccessful job postings on Indeed.com, he said he has resorted to relying on walk-ins.

“The biggest thing with being short-staffed is you don’t want to lose the integrity of your brand and jeopardize service and quality. It can be tough sometimes, especially with impatient guests that come in,” Huggard said.

Some of the longest lines in Harvard Square over the past month have beset the popular Harvard Square eatery Tatte Bakery & Cafe.

Tatte spokesperson Diana C. Pisciotta wrote in an email that the store has significantly scaled back its hours — the cafe now closes at 4 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. — to allow its managers “additional time for recruiting, on-boarding, and training.”

“The restaurant industry, like many others, is facing an uphill climb: workforce shortages, supply chain disruptions, increased costs, and Covid,” she wrote.

Annina C. Kennedy-Yoon ’20, a barista at Darwin’s Ltd. who is involved in efforts to unionize employees at the coffee chain, said that staff turnover has been a persistent challenge at Darwin’s.

“There’s huge turnover in the food service industry, so that just makes it really difficult,” she said. “We keep getting new people who maybe will stay with us for a month, and so you train them for let’s say a week and a half, and they work until the end of the month, and then we have to find a new person.”

Kennedy-Yoon added that Darwin’s is “constantly short-staffed.”

“It’s difficult to be in a position where every minute of when you’re clocked in, you’re just constantly going, going, going,” she said.

Jonathan F. Belton, the Boston district manager at Topdrawer, a “lifestyle accessory” store with a location in Harvard Square, said that though the business also experienced staff shortages, he was able to keep some staff on board by prioritizing their safety.

“The thing that kept me staffed this year was to create an environment that was safe for everyone, an environment where people felt comfortable to come to work and be safe in Covid conditions,” he said.

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Some students said they have noticed insufficient staffing and long wait times while trying to get a bite off campus.

Long lines at Tatte have discouraged Katherin T. Vasquez Sanchez ’25 from frequenting the establishment.

“I usually love going there, but I stopped going, because the lines were so long and I have classes in the morning,” she said. “I’d say the wait time is probably anywhere from 20 minutes to half an hour.”

Nahla C. Owens ’25 said she noticed that businesses like Insomnia Cookies and Kung Fu Tea — both of which are looking for new employees — are frequently packed with customers in the evening.

“One person is responsible for taking people’s orders, putting together ice cream, and grabbing cookies,” she said of Insomnia.

Owens said she empathizes with overstretched employees who are struggling to satisfy customers’ demands.

“It is sad to go in and see only one or two staff members, specifically at Kung Fu Tea, struggling to make drinks, especially when there’s a line out the door of students,” Owens added. “I can imagine that might be stressful for them.”

—Staff writer Tracy Jiang can be reached at tracy.jiang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @_tracyjiang_.

—Staff writer Davin W. Shi can be reached at davin.shi@thecrimson.com.

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