By Zach Hammack
WAVERLY, NE (Lincoln Journal Star) — For the greater part of the 46 years Jim Wilkinson has owned and operated HoneyCreek Dining in Waverly, his stack of applications was typically well-stocked with 20 or so prospective cooks and servers.
That stack has thinned with restaurants struggling to staff their kitchens, dining rooms and bars amid an unprecedented labor shortage gripping the industry — and threatening the economy.
This week, Wilkinson and his wife, Kathy, decided to close the restaurant after a nearly five-decade run because they simply can’t find enough people to work.
“That was the final straw,” said Jim Wilkinson, 71.
The couple had hoped to keep the restaurant — a hub for breakfast, lunch and dinner (or just a cold beer) off U.S. 6 — open for another four years until Jim reached 75.
“We’re just not going to make that,” Kathy Wilkinson said.
The lack of available workers meant HoneyCreek’s existing staff, which numbered about 18 on the restaurant’s last payroll, was working more and working harder.
“I’m burning them out,” Jim Wilkinson said.
Coupled with health issues his wife is battling, the time was right to close up shop now, he said. The restaurant’s last day is Friday.
Jim Wilkinson has plenty of thoughts on why he can’t find workers — officials’ handling of the pandemic, a changing work culture, competition from national chains — but he said wages aren’t one of them. He’s paying well above the minimum wage in Nebraska.
The Waverly restaurant is not alone in having to close its doors because of a lack of workers, and Wilkinson suspects the problems will only get worse.
While it’s hard to quantify how many restaurants in Nebraska have been forced to close due to staffing shortages, there are notable examples.
In Lincoln, restaurants such as Dino’s on South 84th Street and Valentino’s sit-down restaurants in east Lincoln and near SouthPointe have closed amid the staffing crisis.
Zoe Olson, executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, says the problem is a confluence of factors: workers’ health concerns and lack of child care amid the pandemic, just to name a few.
“It’s a perfect storm,” Olson said.
And it’s affecting all sectors of the economy — not just restaurants — from suppliers to truck drivers.
But while the picture may seem grim, Olson said it’s not unusual for restaurants to open and close throughout a typical year, and most of the time it’s for other reasons.
Just this week, Brewsky’s announced it was closing its South Street location because it couldn’t reach a deal with the building’s landlord.
“That’s pretty normal in business,” Olson said.
Rutabaga’s Comfort Food, a vegan restaurant in downtown Lincoln, also said it was closing this week but hinted that it may return as a new concept.
It’s a move that’s indicative of a broader theme across the industry: The need to adapt, to try new things.
“The restaurant industry has gone through a lot of changes, will go through more, undoubtedly,” Olson said.
You might have noticed a few: more carryout options, a new food truck offering, physical menus replaced by nifty QR codes. Olson said some restaurants are experimenting with apps or table kiosks where guests can request service, instead of having a server repeatedly check on a table.
Some restaurants have cut hours, closed on certain days of the week and taken off holidays they typically never did. And many have increased wages for workers while still operating on razor-thin profit margins, Olson added.
“I think the really, really good operators, they’re going to continue to be nimble and innovative, and they’ll make it work, but sometimes COVID is the final straw,” she said.
Jim Wilkinson established his restaurant — then named Shirley’s, after his mother, who was also a co-founder — in September 1976. Three years later, it was rebranded as the Sports Page with the menus mimicking the sports section of a newspaper.
The Wilkinsons eventually renamed it HoneyCreek Dining about 12 years ago and later introduced a bakery. The focus eventually turned to pizza — a Jim Wilkinson specialty.
“The pizza was a huge, huge success,” he said.
Jimmy Decker started working for the Wilkinsons as a dishwasher 27 years ago before earning a promotion to cook. He said he’s working harder with fewer staff members and has already started looking for another job.
The Wilkinsons’ three daughters, and some of their children, too, all worked at the restaurant.
Decker said he’ll miss the customers — many of whom he knew so well he could start their orders as soon as they walked through the door.
“It’s going to hit me, but it’s time for me to move on,” he said.
While plans for the building are still up in the air, Jim Wilkinson said he has fielded some offers. Like Decker, he’ll miss the people the most after HoneyCreek shuts down.
The restaurant plans to offer breakfast and lunch from 9 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. and carryout pizza from 4-8 p.m. on the final day.
And he’s grateful for the longtime staff — including Decker — who have helped keep the restaurant afloat nearly 50 years, 4 million eggs and 250,000 pounds of hamburger beef later.
“I thank them forever and ever.”
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