Subway sandwich shop owner Rick Johnson has everything he needs to make your lunchtime sandwich — except just one thing: the people to put it together.
Johnson locked the door at his Jackson location in the Kmart Plaza Aug. 18 because he didn’t have any workers. He hopes to be back open soon, but that depends on finding replacements.
“I just ran out of employees,” he said late last week. “In 30 years I’ve never experienced anything like this. I can’t even get an application.”
To the ongoing difficulty in hiring people around Jackson he added COVID-19 to the list of things that’s made the problem worse. The final, unbearable factor was the winding down of summer, which meant his summer high school hires began to fall out, as they always do.
Johnson also missed J-1s this year, the foreign workers who come to the U.S. for a season to work. They didn’t come this year or last because of the coronavirus. Though Johnson never brought in any himself, he routinely took some on who worked at Subway as a second job.
The shop is one of the original businesses in the Kmart Plaza, now becoming a Target plaza. It celebrated three decades of sandwiches on July 1.
“This is the first time in 30 years I’ve had to shut down,” Johnson said.
Johnson explained his difficulty from his store in Alpine, where he and his single employee were keeping the sandwiches coming. It wasn’t exactly how the 62-year-old envisioned spending his day as the owner of two successful Subway locations, but he said he was doing what he had to do: “This is my living; this is how I put my kids through college,” he said, adding that “I’d like to retire.”
Running the Jackson shop from 9 to 9 takes a crew of five, he said. That’s three for the early shift that includes lunch and two for the later shift. He estimated that a usual busy days sees him selling about 180 sandwiches at the Jackson shop.
New hires start at $12 an hour, and with tips that’s likely to be $17 or $18, Johnson said. On a good day a Subway sandwich maker might clear $20 an hour.
Dairy Queen owner Darrell Hawkins agreed that “everyone is struggling for help right now,” but said he’s had a record summer as tourism numbers soared. He has maintained about 20 workers — fewer than he’d prefer — by offering two enticements.
First, Hawkins has housing, some trailer space that he’s had for years “so that we’re able to attract folks who don’t have what it takes to move into an apartment these days.”
Second, years ago he set up a fund that he supports to pay school costs of people who work for him. He said he just paid $1,500 to one departing employee and has another staff member with $8,000 in the trust.
Hawkins also tries as much as possible to be a “frictionless employer,” not being as demanding as a lot of employers would naturally be.
“There’s a lot of noise coming from competing entities for labor; the last time I checked there was nine pages of want ads,” he said. “There’s just too many options of going somewhere else.”
Subway owner Johnson hopes to see some new workers soon. New people traditionally begin to show up as the seasons change. He also believes that the end of federal COVID unemployment benefits, set for next week, is likely to “give us a new crowd” of potential employees.
Johnson said he was disappointed not to be open for the many regular customers he’s come to know over the years. He said that when he’s worked regularly he’s come to know people by what they like for lunch and “as soon as they walk in I start making their sandwiches.”
“But I can’t run the store myself,” he said.