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The Dartmouth
March 4, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Upper Valley restaurants face labor shortage

Restaurants like Trail Break, Molly’s and Pine have begun to take action to mitigate the lack of labor supply in the Upper Valley.

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This fall, a number of businesses in the Upper Valley have struggled to find a stable workforce, leading many to make difficult decisions to stave off the negative impact of the labor shortage.

Trail Break, the Upper Valley’s ski-themed Mexican restaurant, is preparing to close its White River Junction location after six years as they begin renovations on a new location in Quechee, Vt., according to restaurant owner Topher Lyons. Since the pandemic, Lyons has struggled to staff the restaurant fully, currently operating with several fewer servers, line cooks and busboys than Trail Break’s pre-pandemic numbers. 

“My servers are also my catering staff, and the line cooks here are prep cooks and on catering,” Lyons said. “It’s rare that we can operate the restaurant and one [food truck] let alone two full bookings for the catering simultaneously.”

At the same time, Lyons seized the opportunity to move locations. With the lease for the restaurant’s White River Junction location ending in this winter, Lyons began to look for locations nearby in the Upper Valley, hoping to maintain Trail Break’s core base of clients and staff. When he found a location in Quechee, he toured the property with some of the core staff and decided to purchase it. 

“The first time we looked at it, we all kind of could picture Trail Break at it, which I couldn’t say the same for previous properties,” Lyons said.

While the theme and menu of the new restaurant will remain consistent, Lyons is taking measures to address the largest problem with the restaurant: the current labor shortage.  

One of these measures include purchasing a third food truck, shifting Lyons’ business away from dine-in to catering due to the labor shortages: it takes only five people to fully staff the food truck, whereas the restaurant needs at least 15 workers to function, Lyons said. Currently, his two food trucks cater weddings, graduation parties and other events and are staffed with members of his restaurant team.  

The food trucks also bring in the same amount of revenue, if not more, as the restaurant, he added.

This financial decision will allow Lyons to expand the business while preserving what Lyons sees as the heart of the operation: the food and atmosphere at the restaurant. 

“When you look out and [the restaurant is] super packed and people are enjoying themselves, that’s like at the core of what I enjoy and the staff enjoys,” Lyons said. “Focusing on just catering and a little takeout kitchen would probably do well financially but it wouldn’t fill the void that would be created by not being at the White River location.”

Lyons hopes to improve the restaurant at this new location by bringing back things like seasonal specials and weekend brunches. 

“We did brunch for a while and it was a giant success, and we had to stop it a couple of times just due to staffing,” Lyons said.

Trail Break’s staffing shortage and new location reflect a widespread labor shortage throughout the Upper Valley and the country, Lyons said. Molly’s Restaurant and Bar also faces challenges with staffing, according to restaurant manager Andrea Field. The core of the Molly’s staff has worked at the restaurant for more than one year, which has enabled the usual level of service despite a staffing shortage, Field said. 

“We’re still pretty short staffed, but everyone here is very strong,” Field said. 

Pine Restaurant is similarly struggling with the labor shortages but to a greater extent, Pine manager Brendan Belanger said.

According to Belanger, there has been a lack of qualified job applications. Even after candidates are hired, many do not come to work for their first day, never contacting the restaurant again, Belanger said. He has even resorted to alternative recruitment methods, such as posting on job boards at Hanover High School and speaking with employment offices at Dartmouth. 

“We used to have people knocking down the door, and we would have a stack of resumes that were all highly qualified individuals,” Belanger said. “We are struggling to find anybody right now.”

The restaurant is now operating without any busboys, food runners or dishwashers due to a lack of interest in the positions, Belanger said. He said he has had better luck staffing positions like servers, but even that process presents its own challenges. 

“We have a lot more training from ground zero,” Belanger said. “We don’t have many qualified candidates, so we are taking people who don’t have the experience that would normally be looking for and we train them. This is better than not having anyone at all.” 

In fact, the  labor shortage exists in every department in the Hanover Inn, from housekeeping to valet service, Belanger added. 

“We definitely are facing labor shortages and it affects the level of service we are able to provide,” he added.

In an attempt to address the labor shortage, Lyons purchased a residential duplex along with the Trailbreak’s new Quechee location. With this housing availability, Lyons hopes to employ immigrant workers on J1 visas who will live in the space and pay rent while they work at Trail Break. By creating housing opportunities for his staff, Lyons said he will guarantee a workforce for his restaurant, solving his labor shortage. 

According to Lyons, this practice is common in the area. A friend who runs operations at Killington Ski Mountain told Lyons that one-third of the mountain’s staff are also immigrants who are housed as they work seasonally.  

The new location and increased catering business will also enable Trail Break to become a seasonal restaurant, Lyons said. Once the restaurant closes at the end of November, it will reopen only from April to October. In the off-season, Lyons will focus on business planning while he and his staff also recharge for the next season or take on other jobs. He hopes that this decision will prevent burnout for his staff and himself.

The loyal customers and positive atmosphere keep Lyons tied to the restaurant, despite all the hardships that go along with managing the business, Lyons said. 

“It’s awesome to see everyone back time and time again, and it gives me the confidence to make these crazy decisions and at least think or know that they will probably work out,” Lyons said.