Why a handful of businesses have been less impacted by the county’s labor shortage
Employers cite fulfilling work, possible career growth and long-standing reputations as reasons why they aren’t struggling as much as others
At first, it seemed no business was safe from Summit County’s severe labor challenges. Restaurants, retail stores, transit operations and even the homebuilding industry have all expressed frustrations and worries about the lack of applicants.
But a few companies are singing a different tune.
Phillips Armstrong is the founder and operating partner of Destination Hospitality, which owns Aurum Food & Wine Breckenridge and The Carlin. Armstrong’s company owns a total of six restaurants, most of which are fine dining experiences. He says that it is now part of the company’s culture to expect a certain level of poise and professionalism from workers, which he believes works in their favor.
“A lot of industry workers are looking to party and maybe even drink on the job or show up hungover,” Armstrong said. “We’re not that restaurant. We require people to have food and wine knowledge. We take our industry really seriously, and that’s not for everybody. We certainly don’t attract the people that are just there to hang out and to party. We attract the people who like a little bit more structure in their workplace and enjoy the educational aspect.”
Between the six restaurants, Destination Hospitality employs about 150 people, and 25 of those are employed at Aurum in Breckenridge. The company is opening a new Aurum location in Aspen, so it has more positions open than usual. But not counting this new eatery, the company is currently hiring for 15 positions, only one of which is in Breckenridge.
When hiring for these positions, Armstrong said his company is typically looking for individuals who already have some hospitality experience. Knowledge about food and wine is preferred, though they’ll train those who are interested in a hospitality career.
Armstrong did note that since his company is larger, there is more opportunity for growth, which might not be the case at a mom and pop shop.
Tim Applegate notes the same thing. As the owner of multiple businesses in the county — including Sauce on the Blue, Sauce on the Maggie and Quandary Grille — Applegate employs around 150 people and currently has around 15 open positions. He’s not overly concerned about filling these, in part, because he knows he can offer more to employees than just a job.
“There’s a lot of room for advancement within our company,” Applegate said. “We have multiple businesses, and we will be opening … probably an additional four or five in the next two years. … What we’re trying to offer here is more of a career than a job.”
Armstrong said his company hasn’t had much difficulty acquiring applicants, which he attributes to the company’s culture in addition to the benefits offered to staff. These include a $1,000 wellness bonus, tuition reimbursement, health insurance and team travel experiences.
Though, Armstrong pointed out that not all companies are able to afford such lavish benefits. Smaller companies, such as Silverthorne-based Lenka’s Loving Care, have to rely on other means to retain employees.
The three-year-old company provides home-care services to older adults in the county who need extra assistance. Owner and Executive Director Lenka Lesmerises believes that the business’ low turnover is due to its meaningful work. Four employees have been with the business since it opened, and over half of the staff has worked there for more than two years.
“We are different from other businesses in that we do make that difference in our community, and we make those very close and loving relationships with our clients,” Lesmerises said. “And that’s what lots of people are seeking nowadays, to have that real connection because everyone’s been so isolated. Lots of people have reached out to us because they are done with their present career. It’s not fulfilling for them.”
The business has 33 staff members, six of which are full-time employees. The rest are part-time workers, most of which have other jobs. Lesmerises said she doesn’t have the means to offer health insurance to her staff, but there are other perks to the job.
“When we hire someone, we’re very flexible with their schedule,” she said. “We have employees that work two hours per week, and we have employees that are on 60 hours getting overtime. We have morning, midday, afternoon, overnight shifts — so we’re absolutely flexible.”
Right now, she has two open positions, but she already has two applicants that she plans to hire. For her, word of mouth has proved to be most useful in hiring quality caregivers — especially with the $50 to $200 bonus she offers to those who recommend candidates — but she’s also relied on Facebook heavily, too. For Armstrong, Indeed.com works the best.
As for housing, the business owners note that it’s an issue they struggle with, too. Applegate recently bought an apartment building with four two-bedroom units for his staff. Last year, Armstrong said Destination Hospitality was endeavoring to secure six bedrooms for Aurum employees, only to learn that the employees at the time were not interested in these units.
“We were about to sign a lease on these properties, and none of our employees wanted the housing,” Armstrong said. “I think it was mainly because most of our employees didn’t want to live with other employees.”
Lesmerises also helps her employees find housing if needed, but most of her staff are already long-term locals who have connections. Not many of her employees are there for just a season, but she said she’s reached out to the community to help those staff members secure a place to live when needed. She also recently increased wages, which now range from $18 to $24 per hour.
In general, Armstrong is convinced that it’s a structured work environment that employees are after.
“People think that by being nice and letting employees get away with a lot that they’re doing that employee a favor,” Armstrong said. “‘We can’t hold people accountable because then they’ll quit.’ I think it’s the opposite. I think people actually really do want to be in a more well-put-together and formal environment, and I would encourage other businesses to hold people accountable and to create a professional environment. I think people want that.”
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