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‘We have 10,000 pounds of tomatoes. Anybody want to help?’ Facing worker shortage, one Baltimore restaurant turns to volunteers

Well Crafted Kitchen needed to process tons of tomatoes this month, enough to make sauce for its Margherita pizzas for the year. But the Hampden restaurant was short on staff.

Co-owner Liz Bower, who started the business as a food truck in 2016 with her husband and another couple, mentioned the problem in a newsletter she sends weekly to customers: “We have 10,000 pounds of tomatoes,” she recalled asking. “Anybody want to help?”

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The response was immediate. Within days, the pizzeria had dozens of volunteers, all customers, showing up for free pizza and for the chance to give back to a favorite restaurant.

Volunteers Val Seaberg, left, and Kate Strain cut locally grown tomatoes in halves to produce pizza sauce.
Volunteers Val Seaberg, left, and Kate Strain cut locally grown tomatoes in halves to produce pizza sauce. (Kenneth K. Lam)

It’s the first time the business used volunteer labor, and it comes as the Jones Falls pizzeria — and so many other local businesses — are caught between rising customer demand and a shortage of workers. A few Baltimore restaurants have closed because owners say they can’t find enough staff to remain open. Others are raising pay and offering incentives to retain and hire staff.

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On Thursday, Baltimore’s Atlas Restaurant Group, which owns high-end restaurants in Harbor East and Fells Point, announced it would raise its minimum wage for all staff to $15 and offer $250 bonuses to new employees that stick with the company for more than 90 days.

Since the pandemic began, many former employees have left the restaurant industry for jobs with more regular hours, SoBo Cafe owner Anna Leventis said. Others have looked for positions with health and retirement benefits, which most restaurants don’t offer.

“Staff with young kids say, ‘Why do I want to work nights and weekends?’” she said.

She closed Annoula’s Greek Kitchen, her food stall in Cross Street Market, because she couldn’t find enough workers. At her nearby Federal Hill bistro, SoBo Cafe, she’s stopped serving weekend brunch and weekday lunch primarily because she didn’t have employees to cover the shifts.

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“Now we’re closed on Tuesdays as well because of lack of staff,” she said.

In Fells Point, Tony Foreman said he shut down Bar Vasquez, a large Argentine steakhouse, because he needed to consolidate his team. His Foreman Wolf restaurant group had just opened Milton Inn, its first foray into Baltimore County, and it was all hands on deck.

In an attempt to woo new employees, the restaurant group has increased wages — and service staff are earning more than ever, Foreman said.

Restaurant owners also are worried about burnout among existing staff.

Well Crafted Kitchen’s volunteer initiative, co-owner Tom Wagner said, “is not a replacement for us paying workers.” Jobs at the pizza shop can pay up to $20 per hour or more, including tips. Wagner said he wants to make sure that current employees don’t feel obligated to take on more hours than they want to.

“We want to do the best for our team,” he said.

While the average tenure of a restaurant worker can be around 60 days, Wagner said Well Crafted Kitchen strives to create an atmosphere where workers want to stay.

Well Crafted Kitchen manager Kelly Sniffen called the volunteering effort a “tremendous help” to her and the rest of the staff, who already are stretched thin fielding orders from customers.

Without the volunteers, “I don’t think we would be able to complete our goal of 10,000 pounds this year,” Sniffen said. “It really shows the type of support and community we have around us.”

A pizza made with freshly processed sauce by volunteers cooks in the restaurant's wood-fire oven.
A pizza made with freshly processed sauce by volunteers cooks in the restaurant's wood-fire oven. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Meredith Lustig and her husband, Mike Axtell, were part of that community of about 50 volunteers who showed up recently to process the tomatoes. The couple — she’s an opera singer, he’s an actor — relocated from New York City to Baltimore last year after the pandemic canceled live performances, their main source of income.

After moving to Maryland, “priority number one was to find a great pizza place so we don’t feel so homesick,” Lustig said.

Well Crafted Kitchen fit the bill. So when the restaurant’s owners shared with customers that they needed volunteers in the kitchen, “it just made sense to help out,” Lustig said. “And also selfishly we wanted to make new friends because we don’t know anybody here.”

There also would be free pizza. But it wasn’t all fun and games.

“I’m surprised by how much my wrist hurts,” said Lustig, as the duo sliced tomatoes by the warmth of the wood-fired pizza oven.

The volunteers learned about the project from Well Crafted Kitchen’s newsletter, which co-owner Bower began sending out at the start of the pandemic to keep customers, or “pizza pals,” informed about how the business was doing.

“I write it as if I’m talking to a friend,” said Bower, 36.

In the early weeks of that tumultuous period, she shared sales goals with emails. “We need your help!” she wrote in 2020, telling customers the restaurant’s target was 250 pizzas per week, enough to keep the lights on and pay employees.

Volunteer and customer Sarah Emrich eats a slice of a pizza she helped make.
Volunteer and customer Sarah Emrich eats a slice of a pizza she helped make. (Kenneth K. Lam)

This transparent approach paid off for Well Crafted Kitchen, which not only survived the pandemic but is seeing more demand than ever before after a slight drop off last year. In May, the restaurant began turning a profit for the first time since COVID-19 hit.

Among the volunteers on a recent Monday evening was Val Seaberg of Charles Village, who recently retired from her sales job at T. Rowe Price Group, where, she joked, “I learned to say things like ‘It’s only 25 million dollars.’” In the past year, she’s signed on to Well Crafted Kitchen’s “pizza pals” subscription, which allows customers to pre-purchase pizza at a discount.

Such subscription programs, for everything from food to wine to coffee, have taken off during the pandemic as business owners look to establish more consistent revenue streams and solidify relationships with customers.

Volunteer Kara Hunerson, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former restaurant worker, described the experience as “a fun change from what I do every day.” She lifted the oversized immersion blender to puree a huge pot of tomatoes fresh out of the oven.

“I wanted to try the big blender, but my arm’s not going to last,” she said.

Many volunteers were struck by the simplicity of the sauce. Local tomatoes, oven-roasted, and pureed with an enormous immersion blender. That puree gets frozen in zip-lock bags and used throughout the year to top pizzas.

“It’s always just tomatoes. Not even salt, oil or herbs,” Tom Wagner said.

After a few hours of labor, it was time for the reward: free pizza. By the flames of the oven, Bower demonstrated the technique for sliding a pie off a wooden peel.

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“You got this,” she told volunteer Sarah Emrich. “Now shake and pull.”

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Emrich tossed the circle of dough in the oven, where it began to bubble almost instantly. The room erupted in cheers and applause.

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