On March 15, 2020, the pandemic forced the chef Dominic Piperno to close Hearthside, his then-two-year-old restaurant in Collingswood, N.J. When he reopened it six months later, industrywide staffing shortages meant he could operate only four days a week. During that period, he noticed what seemed like “a better lifestyle for everybody,” he said.
In January, Mr. Piperno added a fifth day of service, but in the return to the 12-hour workdays that are common in the restaurant industry, he worried that he would lose staff members to burnout. So after just one month, he reversed his decision and went back to four days of service, Wednesday through Saturday.
“That way of life is just not sustainable anymore,” Mr. Piperno said. “Nor should it ever really have been.”
While other types of businesses are clamoring to return to prepandemic norms, Hearthside is one of an emerging class of restaurants around the country — from New York City to Nashville to Los Angeles — that are paring back their hours to create a more sustainable schedule for their employees and draw wary veteran workers back to the business.
“Restaurants are notoriously difficult to run and, up until spring 2020, an operator would usually base their business plan on being open seven days a week,” said Hudson Riehle, the senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association. “So, for an operator to willingly close a few days a week, they’ve put very specific thought into the need to do that and how to create a business plan so it works.”
The change at Hearthside had an immediate impact on Kelly Bradley, a pastry chef, who had felt the job left her “no time to be a mom.” Now she is able to spend more time with her 12-year-old daughter, Makenzie. “The biggest blessing of all of this has just been a better work-life balance,” Ms. Bradley said.
The long-term benefits of a four-day workweek — an idea that has circulated for decades but has never been adopted fully in the United States — go beyond having more down time. Lighter schedules are helping to attract and retain employees at a time when the pool of restaurant workers has diminished. According to the National Restaurant Association, a majority of restaurants remain understaffed. In a survey the organization conducted in November, 62 percent of restaurant operators said they didn’t have enough employees to meet customer demand.
“The schedule is a definite draw for people, without a doubt,” said Leina Horii, an owner of Kisser, a months-old Japanese-style cafe in Nashville that’s open only on weekdays for lunch. “Our staff retention has been amazing.”
Having worked in restaurants with more traditional 12-hour shifts as well as those with slimmer schedules, Ms. Horii and her husband, Brian Lea, said that working in places with pared-down hours allowed them to “be people outside of the restaurant industry.”
“When we decided to do our own thing, it was really important to us to try to continue that,” Mr. Lea said.
The shorter schedule also helped Mr. Lea and Ms. Horii persuade some workers who had left the restaurant industry to come back, including a cook, and a server who is able to operate her own business in her time off.
“The pandemic definitely changed the way we have to approach service-industry jobs,” said Emily Bielagus, an owner of the lesbian wine bar the Ruby Fruit in Los Angeles. “It showed that a lot of people have other options.”
The bar is open five days a week, but Ms. Bielagus and her business partner, Mara Herbkersman, schedule and encourage the staff to work only four days. (They also had to reimagine staff compensation: At the Ruby Fruit and Kisser, all employees are included in the tipping pool.)
Still, it can be difficult to get all employees on board with a shorter schedule. When Patricia Howard and Ed Szymanski opened two restaurants in New York City — Dame in June 2021 and Lord’s in October — both started on a Monday-to-Friday schedule.
As their team grew, staffers requested Saturday service for more scheduling flexibility. In February, Ms. Howard and Mr. Szymanski made the change, while encouraging employees at Dame to work four days a week.
“It came with the added benefit of increased revenue, so we weren’t going to say no,” she said.
But it also came with its share of stresses. “Every day that the restaurants are open means waking up to texts about broken equipment or ingredients that didn’t arrive or employees calling out of their shifts,” Ms. Howard said.
“We don’t want people to be upset with us,” said Mr. Piperno, who also adopted a prix-fixe menu at Hearthside to cut down on food waste and to get more turns, or table changeovers, out of every dinner service. “But unfortunately, for so long, I only cared about the guests. If the person working the wood-fire oven has a better work-life balance, is happy in his job and is not worried about his finances, then it’s something I’m not going to lose sleep over.”