On the weekends, Tracy Roundy wakes up at 3:45 am to open Gramma’s Corner Kitchen, the restaurant she co-owns with her mother Terri in Milwaukie. On a recent Sunday, she was a flurry of activity in the kitchen: reading order tickets, tending to bacon and sausages on the grill and ladling soup into to-go containers.
The restaurant is doing plenty enough business for her to get out of the kitchen, except for one big problem: she can’t find a cook.
“I’ve been trying to hire a full-time cook for about three months now,” Roundy said. “Typically, within a day or two I have to pause the ad because I have 15-20 applicants I have to interview. I think I got two or three applicants total in a two-month period and I had one person show up for an interview.”
Roundy isn’t a foe of the extended unemployment benefits that have been a lifeline for millions of people. She used them herself and went on unemployment for the first time in her life at the beginning of the pandemic.
“I have four kids still at home: one in elementary, one in middle, one in high school and a five-year-old and they all of a sudden needed to be home schooled,” she said.
But as the pandemic grinds on into its second year, Roundy says the support net is shrinking the hiring pool, making her job as a small business owner much more difficult.
“I mean, this is not a high-paying job,” Roundy said. “Typically, our employees start at minimum wage and they are making more on unemployment right now and they’re just unwilling to come back to work.”
She’d just managed to hire a part-time prep cook and server when the most recent order from Gov. Kate Brown closed indoor dining in 15 counties in late April. Roundy had to stop seating customers at Gramma’s and break the news to her brand-new employees.
“I had to essentially lay them off,” Roundy said, just a few weeks after hiring them.
Fortunately, the closure only lasted a week and Roundy reopened indoor dining last Friday. “They didn’t have to take unemployment because it was only for the week but, y’know, I was afraid to lose them!”
After subsisting on to-go orders for much of 2020, business at Gramma’s Corner Kitchen is ticking up. This most recent Sunday — Mothers’ Day — was the busiest day of the year at the family restaurant. But she still worries about the long-term effects the pandemic will have on her business.
“I’ve already seen so many restaurants that have been in business for a hundred years around us, The Bomber and GG’s, that have all closed their doors for good,” Roundy said.
“I just wish that...” She pauses. “I want to be careful how I word it, but I want the opportunity to survive.”
Listen to Roundy’s full conversation with OPB’s John Notarianni using the audio player above.