Karen Bassett and Ben Bullerwell, co-owners and managers of Wayfarer Coffee Roasters in Laconia, work a shift. (Leah Willingham/Laconia Daily Sun)
It takes a good staff to make it in business today
BY LEAH WILLINGHAM, LACONIA DAILY SUN
The Mug restaurant is an undeniable landmark in Center Harbor.
The homey tavern with the fireplace, built-in arcade and customers’ personalized mugs hanging above the bar, will be celebrating 50 years of business in 2018.
But owner Paul Ursillo said he might not open the same restaurant today.
Restaurants in the Lakes Region are having trouble finding and keeping staff. Ursillo said the last five to 10 years have been particularly challenging.
“It just seems to get more difficult as time goes on,” Ursillo said.
Ursillo and his wife, Amy Elfline, found this out firsthand when they opened another restaurant in Center Harbor, The Bay, in 2012. It had long been Elfline’s dream to own a gourmet restaurant, but staffing woes were one reason that Ursillo and Elfline closed The Bay for good last month.
“It was sad to walk away from it,” Ursillo said.
Staffing is an ongoing issue in New Hampshire for local businesses — particularly in the restaurant industry — as young people leave the state and move elsewhere.This is especially so in the Lakes Region, which relies on seasonal employees.
Reuben Bassett is the co-owner of Burrito Me in Laconia and Plymouth, as well as Wayfarer Coffee Roasters in downtown Laconia. In just two-and-a-half years, Bassett’s youngest business, Wayfarer, is averaging more than 200 transactions a day. They’re doing very well, he said.
Their biggest challenge: staffing.
Wayfarer is still young, and Bassett’s wife, Karen, and co-owner Ben Bullerwell are working at the coffee and waffle shop full-time as managers.
For now, Bassett and Bullerwell are happy running the show. But they do worry about a time when they might want to pass the managing torch to someone else. Both the Bassetts and Bullerwell have young children.
“I don’t know if we’re going to want to be making lattes all day forever,” Karen Bassett said.
Reuben Bassett said good management is what enabled the Burrito Me restaurants to be successful. And they’ve been lucky so far with the staff at all three businesses, he said.
“Right now, we’ve got good staff at each of the places,” he said. “But that could change in a heartbeat.”
Ursillo noted that staffing deficits are not just a problem in the restaurant industry, but in all small businesses arenas — especially the Lakes Region, because it’s a seasonal area.
“Everyone is looking for help at the same time,” Ursillo said.
Ursillo cited a gap in the millennial workforce, and college students leaving the Lakes Region to live elsewhere or take summer courses, as a contributing factor to the lack of applicants businesses are receiving.
Reuben Bassett said a lot of these challenges might be unique to the demographics of New Hampshire, which tends to comprise older professionals.
“If someone can take an office job, and make the same amount of money as working in a restaurant, but have benefits, then they’re going to go to that,” he said.
Reuben Bassett said having reliable staff is a large part of what makes a business successful.
“When you have good people, it’s really good,” he said. “When you don’t, it’s a struggle.”
Both owners of Wayfarer and The Mug have learned to be creative to promote their businesses. Both say keen attention to making fresh, homemade food has helped a lot.
At Wayfarer, it’s coffee and waffles, and at The Mug, it’s hand-crafted burgers and pizza.
“We take great pains to make good, quality food,” Reuben Bassett said.
Both restaurants also consider themselves to be community gathering places. At The Mug, local families come in for birthday parties and anniversaries, and sports teams celebrate there after games. Wayfarer has been renting out its space private events, and working with VIBE, an organization working to revitalize Laconia downtown, as well as promoting work by local artisans.
An owner’s commitment to work is another huge boon for a business. Ursillo said he spends 40 to 50 hours working at The Mug during the winter, and 60 to 70 hours in the summer.
“You can't be an absentee owner,” Ursillo said. “You have to be willing to work.”
Staffer Jaqui Menken tends to the bar at The Mug restaurant in Center Harbor. (Leah Willingham/Laconia Daily Sun)