Salvatore’s, Madison area restaurants still reeling from staffing shortages brought on by pandemic

SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. — When Salvatore’s Tomato Pies opened 11 years ago, founder Patrick DePula and his wife Nicole would spend long nights working the front lines.

After a long night at work, their infant and toddler children would watch their parents make dough for the next day.

When Sal’s established itself as a Madison staple, this was no longer an issue.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, though, things have come full circle. They’re so short-staffed right now that their 11-year-old has done the dishes while their 14-year-old makes pizzas.

Accelerated by the pandemic and inflation, restaurants in Madison are reeling. The biggest issue for many continues to be a shortage of staff.

“We’ve owned Salvatore’s for 11 years now and it’s the worst it’s ever been,” DePula said.

After DePula gets all of the ingredients he needs at the Dane County Farmers’ Market at  6 a.m., he then pulls a 14-hour shift alongside his wife and kids.

Staffing issues, he said, aren’t primarily due to a lack of applicants but rather employees skipping and quitting work at an astronomical rate in the industry. Even though DePula provides employees with healthcare, increased pay and paid time off, it’s still not enough.

“So we closed an extra day a week and we were still struggling,” he said. “Last Thursday we had myself, another, and two others called out, we had no choice (but) to close.”

For a Madison icon like Sal’s, demand isn’t the issue; in fact, it’s through the roof. They simply can’t maintain a staff that can support that demand, so the Madison staple had to temporarily close one location, and shave hours at others.

It really hurts to turn away customers too that want to spend money with us and enjoy our restaurants because we can’t staff them,” DePula said.

The pandemic also sliced restaurants’ profit margins.

“Pre-pandemic a restaurant had a 3-5% profit margin,” said Kristine Hillmer, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association’s president and CEO.

That left little wiggle room. Nearly all — 95-97% — of their profits were already spoken for by the time they paid for the food, the staff, the utilities, and overhead. After closing their doors during the pandemic, using their savings and taking out soon-to-be-due loans, 2022’s inflation and shortages have erased nearly all profits.

“It’s just going to be a new normal that folks are going to have to get used to if they want that great restaurant experience. It’s not going to be pre-pandemic times,” Hillmer said.

She added that it’ll take years to solve this complex issue, but in the meantime, restaurateurs in Madison will have to keep scraping by and making pies.