A bubbling economy and low unemployment rate are great for business -- unless you run a restaurant and can't find enough workers.

The food-service industry offers hard work, odd hours and often loud, uncomfortable conditions for modest pay. With central Ohio's unemployment rate below 4 percent, it is no wonder help-wanted signs decorate area restaurants.

Adding to the strain is seasonal competition from central Ohio's warehouse industry and a proliferation of new restaurants, all competing for workers.

"They're hiring dish-tank people for $20 (an hour) in some places because they can't find people to wash dishes," said Rich Spagna, owner of Revelry Tavern in Dublin. "This is the most difficult hiring period I've seen in the 20 years I've been in the industry."

The challenge of finding workers isn't confined to mom-and-pop restaurants.

Dublin-based burger giant Wendy's has talked about rising pay rates and a tight labor supply for a few years now.

Industry veterans and analysts agree labor is a problem everywhere.

"It has been years in the coming," said John Gordon, principal of Pacific Management Consulting Group and an industry analyst. "It is just generally difficult to get employees of all kinds, from dishwashers to assistant managers."

"It's just their No. 1 problem," said Bob Welcher, president of Restaurant Consultants Inc. in Columbus.

Columbus-based White Castle, which boasts that one in four of its employees has been with the company at least 10 years, is trying some new lures, such as raising starting pay and offering health insurance if an entry-level employee stays at least six months.

Still, the chain sees labor challenges not just here but also across its 400 restaurants in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

"We're definitely seeing a tighter labor market than we are used to," said Jamie Richardson, White Castle vice president. "It makes hiring harder. It's real; it is more than just headlines."

Once employees are found, it's just as difficult to keep them.

"It's been hard to get people who will stay," said Nick Naylor, a sous chef at Nicola Restaurant + Bar in Columbus. "It feels like if you don't cater to people completely, they're done."

Vittorio Borgia, general manager of Vittoria Ristorante and Bar in Powell, minces no words when it comes to the emerging restaurant work force.

"The old work ethic is gone," said Borgia, who has spent 42 years in the restaurant business.

Several local restaurateurs throw up their hands in exasperation over the labor pool.

Restaurants aren't alone in struggling to find workers to fill jobs that aren't glamorous.

Some restaurateurs lay their complaints at the feet of millennials and the generation following, saying they're arrogant, overly sensitive and lack the interpersonal skills necessary in a high-paced, stressful and social environment.

And there's another recurring complaint: "They can't stay off their cell phones," Naylor said.

Welcher said he's heard all of the complaints, but offers that times change and work forces do as well. Operators need to adjust because the employees are not..

"It is a whole different mindset how they approach the job. They don't work for you, they work with you," Welcher said. "The restaurant job can seem like something you do while you are waiting to do something else. As an employer you gotta make it fun and interactive. Some operators are doing it."

Chris Corso of Corso Ventures -- which owns Forno Kitchen + Bar, Pint House, Standard Hall and Food Hall -- all in the Short North -- said he's been successful in hiring good employees. Corso said his restaurants don't have a corporate mentality and offer flexibility in terms of scheduling, "understanding what their lifestyles are going to be."

"We're paying a higher wage, but we're not having a problem right now," he said.

Gene Lee, the CEO of Darden, the restaurant giant that owns Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen and several other chains, said restaurants' success hinges on labor.

"Moving forward, the biggest challenge for the industry is going to be the war on talent," Lee told investors recently. "That's where I think the winners will be focused."

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