Kansas restaurant industry still struggling for comeback, officials say

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At legislative hearing, lawmakers discuss raising server pay, social factors causing price inflation

TOPEKA —  The restaurant industry statewide has been plagued by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, inflation and workforce shortages, with new issues making it difficult for restaurant owners to bounce back, officials have said. 

During a Tuesday House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee hearing, Kevin Timmons, restaurant owner and vice chair of the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association, told lawmakers about his recent struggles with inflation. 


“There’s a three-headed monster in manufacturing that’s facing restaurants, and it’s from packing beef to making plastics to everything we get overseas,” Timmons said. “It’s the raw costs, it’s the labor and it’s transportation costs, and this three-headed monster, although there’s been some deflation and we’re starting to get our arms around it, still has our industry in a flux.” 

Timmons said employment levels had mostly bounced back from the pandemic, citing Kansas Department of Labor statistics from 2019. In 2019, the department listed a high of 114,034 Accommodation and Food Services workers in a second-quarter census employment report. In 2020, that number dropped to 82,530. Currently, the industry has about 108,430 Kansan employees, 5% less than pre-pandemic levels, Timmons said.

While worker numbers have increased, Timmons estimated that there are 800 fewer licensed food establishments in Kansas, with many owners worried that their businesses won’t see increased profitability in 2023. 

“As we reopened our doors, there was a different world ahead of us,” Timmons said. “Raw material and labor costs, fuel and transportation costs, and the looming everyday battle of fighting for everyday products left our industry somewhat decimated.” 

Rep. Stephanie Sawyer Clayton, D-Overland Park, questioned him about server wages, saying raising them would be a good way to find more staff.Clayton said the wage hasn’t been raised in years, and she knew firsthand the effect that low wages had on staff morale.

In Kansas, minimum wage for tipped employees is set at $2.13 an hour. Nearby states, such as Missouri, have drawn servers from Kansas by raising their tipped employee minimum wage. Missouri’s minimum wage for tipped employees is now $6 an hour. 

Timmons said wage increases weren’t that important, and that he had seen servers come back to Kansas from Missouri because they cared about customer happiness. 

“They’re in the business to make people happy,” Timmons said. “And the happier they make them, the more they make, and that’s what service is all about.” 


Clayton said this wasn’t the case in her own experience. 

“When I waited tables, I didn’t do it for personal fulfillment,” Clayton said. “I did it because I needed to go to college. And I needed money. People don’t wait tables to make people happy. They do work to make money.” 

Lawmakers also asked Timmons about social factors being an issue for rising grocery costs. Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, said farmers in Netherlands were being pressured to reduce carbon emissions, which could potentially increase imported cheese prices, and the prices for other products.  

“Is this something all of us should be watching in terms of ESG, environment social governance?” Williams said. “Because if that can make such an impact in a couple areas, where do you think long-term that could play for the cost of these perimeter products?”

Timmons said corn and soy price inflation could be a factor in terms of rising restaurant costs.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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