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The plea went out on Instagram: Cultura Comida y Bebida was short staffed. The Carmel-by-the-Sea restaurant could no longer offer its Oaxacan-inspired lunch and might have to cut one evening of dinner service if it wasn’t able to hire more kitchen staff within the week. So, the owners opened up a referral bonus program to the entire community. Anyone who introduced them to someone they eventually hired would receive a $200 gift card. The new employee would, too. 

“Literally if one more person leaves,” Sarah Kabat-Marcy, one of the restaurant’s managing partners, said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” 

After five years of little turnover, the restaurant lost several employees in the past couple of months to larger operations, including luxury hotel restaurants that could pay kitchen staff $37 per hour, Kabat-Marcy says. She and her husband Michael Marcy, who is also a managing partner, increased their kitchen staff’s pay by 20%. Now, kitchen staff make between $20 and $23 per hour. They deserve it, she said, and the cost of living is high in the coastal city. But there’s no way they could match the wages of larger operations, she said. The profit margins are too thin; the restaurant would go under.

In the meantime, hostesses and servers have volunteered to help out in the kitchen. The head chef’s retired parents have even come in and helped make tortillas. The restaurant has slimmed down its menu based on conversations with the kitchen staff about which dishes were easiest to prepare. Neither Kabat-Marcy nor her husband have drawn paychecks from Cultura in over a year. Kabat-Marcy took a second job during the pandemic so that the couple could pay their bills. 

“We’re just on the hairs edge of staff totally burning out,” she said.

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