Grand Marais hotel companies struggle to serve summer tourists

Sven and Ole’s Pizza in downtown Grand Marais typically has 40 employees. This summer, he has four.

A few weeks ago, the pizzeria, which has served customers since the early 1980s, posted on its Facebook page alerting customers to its staffing shortage, sharing updated abbreviated hours and asking for patience. Just the day before, the owner of nearby café Java Moose posted a video on Instagram imploring visitors to be patient while waiting for service at local restaurants. Both cited a serious understaffing at hospitality businesses around their town of Grand Marais, a prominent tourist destination on the north shore of Lake Superior.

According to data from the US Census Bureau, Cook County – home to Grand Marais and the small unincorporated communities of Lutsen, Tofte, Schroeder and the Grand Portage Indian Reservation – has a year-round population of just 5,376 inhabitants. But each year, the county welcomes around 1 million visitors – most between the months of May and October, said Kjersti Vick, director of marketing and public relations for the tourism organization Visit Cook County.

Labor shortages are not new to rural parts of the state; according to state data, job vacancy rates in Greater Minnesota have been increasing since at least 2008. Jim Boyd, executive director of the Cook County Chamber of Commerce, said Cook County had “touched and continue ”to have enough manpower for years to come. Since 2015, the county has regularly seen unemployment rates drop below 3% during the summer months. Boyd cited the growing housing shortage and the pandemic as the main causes.

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“I know a lot of very wealthy resort owners who at certain times of the year now are cleaning the rooms and making the beds because they don’t have enough staff,” Boyd said. “That said, this summer’s shortage is certainly more extreme thanks to COVID. “

International workers essential to the local economy

For decades, Cook County employers have depended on international workers to fill labor shortages during the tourist season. Workers typically come to the United States through one of two visa programs: the J-1 Visa Summer Work Travel program or the H-2B program. The J-1 program allows full-time international college and university students to live and work in the United States for up to four months. Many return for several consecutive summers during their studies. H-2B visa holders are foreign nationals who come to the United States for temporary non-farm positions. They can stay in the country for up to three years.

Typically, Boyd said, Cook County J-1 and H-2B employees work two jobs at a time: one for the companies that sponsor and host them, often large resorts and hotels, and another for small town employers, such as restaurants and gift shops.

This was enough for decades, but in recent years it has been more difficult to bring visa holders in for a number of reasons, including the pandemic and the lack of affordable housing.

COVID-related travel bans around the world have stifled the ability of J-1 and H-2B workers to come to the United States in 2020 and 2021. The State Department has even temporarily suspended all routine visa services. in all U.S. embassies and consulates for a period of 2020. When they finally reopened, Boyd said, they were so backed by requests that many requests were turned down or never processed.

Jelena McAleer, who co-owns Cascade Lodge just 15 minutes from downtown Grand Marais with her husband, said Cascade typically employs around 10 J-1 students each summer, or about a third of its total staff. However, since the start of the pandemic, the lodge has not been able to hire any. “This summer we tried to bring in a few returning J-1 students who previously worked with us, but they were turned down,” she said. (McAleer herself came to the United States from Croatia almost 20 years ago on a J-1 visa.) “The program, while active, is currently not productive as almost everyone is sees refusing. We can no longer rely on J-1 workers like we used to, and have had to focus on local and national recruiting here in the United States.

Until Cook County can get these workers back, local business owners scramble to stay afloat by recruiting as many as they can, working long shifts, and condensing work hours and vacancies. .

Beth Kennedy, a longtime business owner in the Grand Marais, and her son own two businesses in town: Birchbark Books & Gifts and Beth’s Fudge & Gifts. Beth’s Fudge & Gifts typically has 15 employees. In June, he had five.

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“We would normally have four to eight international student employees,” Kennedy said, “But this year we don’t have any.”

To compensate, Kennedy said they were forced to shut down four hours earlier each day than they normally would. “We don’t have second-shift staff,” she said. “I want people to understand how important these J-1 students are to our economy here.”

Barb LaVigne, owner of Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais for three decades, has enough workers at the moment, but she’s not sure it will last for the summer.

Usually, around 30 percent of Angry Trout’s staff – around 12 employees – are J-1 students. This summer, the restaurant could only find four and had to fill the void with local college students. “We love college kids and definitely want to hire as many local kids as possible, but they usually leave in mid-August when we’re busiest,” LaVigne said. “So this year we anticipate a crisis in August. “

Housing shortage exacerbates labor shortage

Pandemic or not, a major shortage of affordable housing in Cook County makes the labor shortage unresolvable, Boyd said.

“I get applications all the time for people in Duluth, Minneapolis, Iron Range, Wisconsin – but I have nowhere to live,” said Sid Backlund, owner of Sven and Ole’s Pizza. “We used to rent a house or two every summer or line up cabins or whatever was available and put people in from out of town, college, or international. But in the last 10 years or so, a lot of these places have been bought by people from other places … and a lot of them have been turned into vacation homes and Vrbo and Airbnb rentals, so they are gone now. . “

LaVigne accepted. “I know there are people who would like to come and work in the Grand Marais, but there is simply no place for them to live.

When McAleer and her husband acquired Cascade Lodge in 2017, she said they quickly learned that having affordable housing for employees was the only way out.

“One of the reasons we are currently a little better placed than many others in the region is that over the past three years we have invested heavily in new employee housing and improved facilities. existing housing for employees, ”she said. “It’s a big investment, but that’s the cost of doing business here. Cascade Lodge houses 100 percent of its employees on its property. McAleer believes having this housing is the only reason they’ve been able to recruit locally and nationally since the pandemic, and it’s also the main reason their business has survived.

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Small business owners in the Grand Marais that do not have housing for their employees, like Backlund and LaVigne, can only get international workers by hiring those sponsored and hosted by local resorts and hotels. But of course, with the shortage of international workers this year, that’s not an option.

Building affordable housing outside the city limits of Grand Marais is also not an affordable option. Grand Marais is the only incorporated town in Cook County with municipal sewers and water. “If you want to build a house outside of the Grand Marais… you pay for the road, the sewers, the well, the electricity,” Boyd said. “You have at least $ 100,000 in the ground before you even put up the first amount.”

“We’re really focused on ways to create more affordable housing here,” Boyd said. “I think there needs to be more discussion here about the need for higher housing density and zoning changes.”

Tourists are always welcome

Even though business owners and employees in Cook County are exhausted from long hours of work, they are still grateful for being able to serve tourists.

“We really want tourists to keep coming,” Boyd said. “We depend on their presence here. We just need a little patience and understanding right now when they visit. We do our best to treat them well and make sure they are comfortable and have clean places to stay, great food to eat and places to explore.

McAleer echoed Boyd’s sentiment. “We love that the Côte-Nord tourism business is so strong right now. We hope it will continue to hold up for years to come and that we can continue to bring good employees here. We all need it.

Bluefin Bay Resort Family and Lutsen Resort were contacted for this story. Lutsen Resort did not respond to calls or emails. A spokesperson for Bluefin Bay said the resort was unable to attend due to its overwhelming crowds.

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