Visitors might do some tasting at New Haven restaurants on Sept. 25, but they won’t find their food at Sample New Haven.
The Chamber of Commerce canceled that one-day food fest at Schnelker Park and along Broadway to the north, calling special attention to the shortage of staffing being experienced in the food and retail sectors. The merchants’ scavenger hunt is canceled, too, as is the Bulldog Bash in the park.
The staffing shortage faces restaurants everywhere, according to Chamber President and CEO Terry McDonald. “Restaurants that normally would be participating in the annual Sample New Haven event are plagued by the nationwide problem of not having necessary staffing,” he said. “They simply don’t have enough people to serve their regular customers inside and also be able to hand out samples outside.”
A dozen restaurants and other businesses had signed up to participate, but some had dropped out and others had not yet decided as the day approached; others had not yet committed. With just two weeks to go, the Chamber made the difficult call.
That decision was yet another disappointment for the folks at Rich’s Cafe, the little diner by the tracks just a block north of the park on Broadway.
Rich’s owner Jim Symington has been serving breakfast and lunch to a loyal following for 19 years. He’s been preparing big batches of soup since the first Sample several years ago. Despite being short-staffed, Symington was ready to greet the crowds again.
Symington said reports of hiring woes in the restaurant industry are all too true. “We can’t get people. Nobody wants to work,” he said.
“I’m short people too right now,” he said, acknowledging that he does have a few loyal, longtime employees. He spoke Friday, on the eve of an emergency services celebration that would bring hundreds of firefighters, EMTs, police and others to New Haven. “I’m opening the restaurant at 5 o’clock for the firemen. This is a big day for New Haven tomorrow,” he said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic set in, he has been able to open the restaurant at 7 a.m., and “I usually lock the door about 1:45 or 1:50.”
He wishes he could keep longer hours. “The restaurant people are kind of sitting back waiting for the next tsunami to hit,” he said. “With the rising cost of food and the shortage of labor, it’s difficult just to get supplies. There are so many shortages.”
Many restaurants are simplifying menus to adjust to shortages, he said. “I have left my menu alone. I do have to increase prices because they’re going up too fast,” he said. “And it’s going to happen that the prices will go up so quickly no one can afford to go out.”
So far, though, he has been able to keep serving “a nice, loyal group of customers.”
“I’m here every day,” he said.
He had been ready to accept the further challenge of Sample New Haven. “That used to be a decent thing, when the original Sample came out it was who had the best soup,” he said. Over time, the food options and direct sales have changed the event, he said. He has stayed loyal to the soup samples. “Two different pots I put out there,” he said. “I don’t even know what I’m going to make. But now that it’s canceled I’m not going to worry about it.”
The latest cancellation is a familiar story for Mark Anderson, owner of Andy’s Knockout Chicken. The six-time winner of the Sample New Haven People’s Choice Award said he’s catering fewer events these days, but said every fundraiser ends up making a profit.
Anderson said his business is somewhat insulated from the labor shortage, because he and his wife work the events. Their five children also rotate in and out of the staff as necessary. He acknowledged that not everyone has such a ready labor pool.
He said he had been working with Chamber Membership Director Monika Lepper on plans for another Sample. “We were gonna do it,” he said. “And doggone it it was so much stress on everybody with being able to get help. It’s really too bad.”
Though his family staffing plan offers backup labor, he said, the calendar has some openings. “Obviously we’re not at as many events as we did because of COVID. Some schools and some churches are not doing their events,” he said. “We’re busy, but we could be busier.”
He also credits his business plan. “Our minimum is attainable,” he said. “Our minimum is only 300 half-chickens,” he said, adding that competitors might require 600 half-chickens. “And 90% of the people we had last year are back.”
Anderson said he works with customers to encourage advance sales and a chance to update orders one week before the event. Many events sell out in advance. Others increase their orders as the date approaches. The popular side of potatoes sells with about 75% of the meals, he said.
Like the Chamber, he looks forward to 2022 and perhaps another Sample New Haven. Meanwhile, he said, he’s available on Facebook.
— New Haven resident and freelance writer Rod King contributed to this report.