Every time Tami Lax thinks she’s ready to reopen Harvest, her Capitol Square restaurant, where the dining room has been closed since the start of the pandemic, she hesitates.
She’s busy attending to the Old Fashioned, the popular, Wisconsin-themed restaurant she co-owns next door, where employees tell her they can’t work because they’re moving away or they don’t want to be in the restaurant industry anymore, she said.
“It just has been brutal, just never ending. So, I’m still patiently putting that back together. And as soon as I do, I’ll put my energy into Harvest,” Lax said.
She ran a curbside pickup and delivery version of the restaurant, Harvest Go, from March 2020 until June 2021, serving a bistro-style menu. It was comfort food in larger portions that could travel, but in keeping with Harvest’s commitment to buying local, fresh and organic whenever possible.
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Lax said she discontinued Harvest Go when people started getting out more and weren’t ordering carryout as often. As it got warmer, people were starting to dine outside. “Financially, Harvest Go was really tough,” she said.
She started Harvest Go to keep her staff employed and concentrate on reopening, she said. “In the beginning we were like, ‘Oh, we’ll be back at it in six weeks.’ “
Lax intended to reopen Harvest, 21 N. Pinckney St., a year ago, but said staffing issues kept her from that goal.
She said she was talking with someone she wanted to hire as her new chef at Harvest, and the woman ended up taking a position at Epic Systems because Lax couldn’t give her a solid reopening date.
“I’m hoping this fall yet,” she said. “My fingers are crossed. I’m just plugging away.”
At Harvest, she can’t reopen with employees who have never worked in fine dining before. “People have an expectation of coming into our restaurant and they don’t want someone who’s never waited tables before, someone who doesn’t have a deep wine knowledge,” she said.
Before reopening, she intends to freshen up the restaurant’s look with new banquettes and carpeting, and a fresh paint job. “You know, just give it a new dress.”
Harvest’s website is down. It was hacked early in the pandemic and is being rebuilt, she said.
Lax has been working the line at the Old Fashioned herself, using the kitchen at Harvest to cook and prepare entrees. She usually works three, 16-hour shifts a week, always on Fridays and Saturdays, and then on Mondays or Tuesdays.
“It’s this weird thing,” she said. “I’m loving it, but it’s also like my hands are tied. I can’t get a whole lot done when I’m doing that as well.”
Lax called hiring cooks “impossible,” something she’s never experienced before. Harvest opened 2000, the Old Fashioned in 2005.
Some days, she said, she’ll interview potential hires back-to-back for six hours and then do it all again two weeks later.
She said she’ll have great interviews with people who are excited about working at the Old Fashioned, and then they don’t follow through. Recently she had someone she waited a month for, and the day before he was supposed to start, he called and said he decided keep his old job.
Many people who got out of the restaurant business during the pandemic have decided they want to do something completely different, she said.
“It’s always been a tough industry,” Lax said. “And I think it’s just such a shift in the workplace and I know it’s not just restaurants.”
She said she has friends in other types of businesses who are experiencing the same thing.
Lax said she’s trying not to let it break her spirit, and said the situation seems to have gotten slightly better in the last two months.
The Old Fashioned went back to offering lunch about a month ago, but she hasn’t reopened its second level yet due to staffing.
Also, as more people are now working from home, a trend that started early in the pandemic, there are fewer office workers on the Square during the day, she said. Therefore, at lunch, Lax said she’s only opening half of the dining room.
Before the pandemic, with a full dining room, customers often had to wait 15 to 20 minutes for a table at lunchtime, she said.
The restaurant still hasn’t reopened on Sundays, but Fridays and Saturdays are busy, Lax said, noting that the recent CrossFit Games held in Madison brought in not just competitors, but spectators and their families. “Super grateful for that,” she said.
Lax owns the Old Fashioned with Marcia Castro, and said they’re working to buy out a silent investor.
The restaurants seats about 120 on its ground level and another 45 to 50 upstairs. Lax said she hasn’t opened her sidewalk seating because of the staffing issue.
If anything positive has come out of the pandemic, it’s that it has allowed them to begin paying kitchen staff as much as waitstaff, Lax said.
“That has been received really well by both front and back of the house,” she said.
Those who work front-of-the-house jobs have taken a slight pay cut since they’re now sharing their gratuity with back-of-the-house employees.
“We moved everyone to a very generous hourly wage. And then we do a tip pool. Managers get paid more than the hourly people,” she said.
Lax said the base hourly wage starts at $15, and depending upon the position, goes up to $25 an hour. The tip share is done with the entire staff, giving everyone an additional $8 to $15 an hour.
The restaurant has always offered health insurance, but recently began a matching 401k plan, which “has made it more of a desirable profession for a lot of people who do take this profession seriously and want to grow into it and expand with us,” Lax said.
“You open a restaurant and you just do things the way it was always done,” she said. “You never think outside the box. So, I think the pandemic really allowed us to do that and to listen to our staff… I think this was probably the only positive thing that came out of this pandemic. I’m grateful for it.”
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