GREENFIELD – Not long ago, signs littered the front doors of restaurants in the city explaining closures due to a lack of workers.

Those struggles persisted even as a slew of new restaurants were announced, prompting the question – would they cut their ribbons only to quickly follow with closure notices of their own?

But staffing conditions and outlooks have improved, according to those with eateries in Greenfield and those with plans to bring them there. That progress has been possible because of matters under their control, namely higher wages and enhancing workplace culture.

Several restaurants have opened in Greenfield recently, including Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bread and Trio, and Panda Express not long before them. More are on the way, including Chick-fil-A, Jersey Mike’s Subs, McAlister’s Deli and Olive Garden.

Southern Rock Restaurants, based in Franklin, Tennessee, plans to bring a McAlister’s Deli to McKenzie Plaza in Greenfield next year. The company operates over 100 locations of the franchise in eight states, including Indiana.

David Blackburn, chief executive officer and chief operating officer of Southern Rock Restaurants, anticipates hiring 60 employees to start before determining how many are needed as the business settles in.

Blackburn said the company’s McAlister’s Deli locations are fully staffed for the most part. They, like many other restaurants, however, were substantially short as the world began recovering from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We believed that we could become completely staffed again, but we would have to do a few things differently,” he said.

One was to increase wages.

“If you believe in supply and demand – and that kind of drives wages – there’s less people, and they require more money, so we had substantial increases in our total compensation for the average team member on our team,” Blackburn said. “We manage those rates basically in each community that we serve. There’s a pretty big variable, but our total compensation averages well over $14 now for an hourly team member.”

Southern Rock Restaurants also implemented a different strategy for recruiting by taking advantage of social media and algorithms available to determine the best times to advertise for job openings.

“We just did a deep dive, kind of threw out what we thought we knew and the way we were doing things, and just said, ‘What’s going to work today?’” Blackburn said. “And then those things have worked for us by and large. I’m not saying we’re not short-staffed from time to time or somebody calls out sick; that’s the nature of the beast in any industry, really.”

He added he’s noticed among many brands, even large national ones, an unwillingness to allow local leadership to place more advertisements and spend money to recruit or raise base wages.

“You’ve got to be willing to pay what you must pay, whatever that is, and then you’ve got to price your menu accordingly, whatever that is, and if you aren’t willing to do that, then you’re just going to prolong agony and wonder why you can’t staff your restaurant,” he said. “It’s possible. I’ve been preaching that to a lot of folks, and people need to be paid what they need to be paid to be able to be competitive in any community, and that’s what everyone needs to adopt very soon.”

Jason Horning and his family plan to open a Jersey Mike’s Subs in Greenfield’s Melody Plaza this fall and expect to need between 15 and 20 employees.

“It’s definitely something that you have to have on your mind as you’re thinking about opening up a new business,” Horning said of staffing.

He thinks getting weekday daytime help will be a bigger challenge, as the workforce is more limited during that time.

“Then you get all the teenagers that you can draw from for evenings and weekends,” he added.

One aspect that will help, he said, is the wage of up to $15 that hourly employees will be offered.

“And then the other thing that I think is going to help us is going to be our culture, and the way that we treat and appreciate our employees,” Horning said. “So I think that will help with retention. … I think a big part of that is the culture and the way that you care about your employees and make them feel appreciated and part of the team, and that they’re not just there to do a mundane task.”

Chick-fil-A remains on track for opening off State Street in Greenfield this fall, according to Cody Walburn, the location’s operator. He told the Daily Reporter in an email that the business is optimistic about reaching its staffing goal of about 120 full- and part-time employees.

According to Chick-fil-A’s hiring website, back-of-house and front-of-house team members will make between $10 to $15 an hour and leadership will make between $30,000 to $60,000 a year.

“At Chick-fil-A Greenfield, we want to attract and retain the best talent, which is why our restaurant is proud to offer highly competitive wages and benefits,” Walburn said. “We are also fully invested in the education and long-term career prospects of Chick-fil-A team members, which includes opportunities for leadership growth, hands-on training and mentoring, and the chance to apply for scholarships to support their continuing education.”

Erin Wolford, vice president, external communications for Chipotle Mexican Grill, told the Daily Reporter in an email that the location that opened last month in Greenfield is fully staffed.

Chris Baggott, who owns the restaurants Grigsby’s Station and The Mug in Greenfield, recalled having to close for weeks at a time amid the labor crisis spurred by the pandemic.

“It’s a lot better, but there’s been a lot of compromise,” he said. “It’s been a big change, and we’re paying a lot more per hour now.”

Factors beyond pay have changed as well.

“We’re thinking more about the quality of life of our employees,” Baggott said. “We have a core team that we want to take care of. I think in the past it was a lot more interchangeable.”

For example, Grigsby’s Station was closed on a recent Saturday – typically a busy day for restaurants – due to multiple staff members needing the day off.

“In the old days, you’d be like, ‘Heck with you, you’re fired, we’ll hire somebody else,’” Baggott said. “Now it’s like, you know what, we’ve got this great team, we’re really committed to them and they’re committed to us.”

It made sacrificing the Saturday worth it, he continued, adding it’s part of an overall positive shift.

“We’re all in this together and it’s really helped our turnover just to kind of rethink the relationship, I think is probably the best way to look at it,” he said.