KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — In the Florida Keys, businesses come and go. Customers are fickle and profit sometimes doesn’t match rent.
But when a restaurant this past week announced it was closing because it can’t keep enough employees on the payroll, it quickly caught the attention of boozy, balmy and barefoot Key West.
Lost and Found, a restaurant and bar at 404 Southard St., known for its big burgers and a square bar serving beer on tap, was set to close at 7 p.m. Sunday.
“The labor and housing situation in Key West has made it impossible for us to find the right help,” owners Nick Dent and Ashlee Girard posted Thursday on Facebook. “This decision was not made lightly. After months of exhausting every option to avoid this very scenario, it became clear that it was inevitable.”
The two operate another Key West restaurant, the pub-style Old Town Tavern at 900 Duval St., which opened in 2018.
The Lost and Found opened in the pre-vaccine COVID period, in January 2021. It survived the pandemic but couldn’t withstand Key West’s worker shortage.
COST OF LIVING
In the Keys, the ever-worsening housing crisis keeps forcing working people off the island.
A single room can cost $1,400 a month. Several hundred apartments designed for low-income and workforce housing are under construction in the Southernmost City.
At the same time, an aging trailer park on Stock Island is shuttering, forcing families to find tough-to-find affordable housing.
“When we get down to it, we just don’t have the people to open the doors and provide the level of hospitality we expect,” Dent and Girard posted.
Lost and Found was closed Thursday and Friday. But it planned to open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, the owners said.
“Between two restaurants, everyone is spread too thin and it is starting to take a toll,” they said.
NOT ENOUGH WORKERS
Working more than two jobs is commonplace in Key West. Even professionals have side jobs and couples rent out rooms to pay the mortgage.
So a veteran Key West restaurant owner said a place folding due to a staffing shortage isn’t surprising.
“This is a problem that’s been going on for a very, very long time,” said Bill Lay, who owns the two La Trattoria restaurants in Key West, Virgilio’s, Benihana, and a catering company. “We’re not losing people, we’re losing families. It’s just not worth it. Our economy is unbalanced.”
Hurricane Irma, which slammed the Keys five years ago this month, was a blow to working people, Lay said. COVID-19 made things worse.
More than a year ago, Lay changed his business hours because of a lack of workers. La Trattoria on South Roosevelt Boulevard is no longer open on Sundays and Mondays. The location downtown is closed on Sundays.
“I don’t have staff to cover those days,” Lay said.
The New Jersey-born Lay, 52, said Key West has always been far more expensive than places on the mainland. When Lay landed in Key West 23 years ago, he had three roommates. Today, he runs five businesses.
“I worked my a– to get here,” Lay said. “A lot of sleepless nights.”