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Solving the labor crisis one bus at a time

Nashville MTA
Nashville MTA

With restaurants dealing with a labor crisis, the last place an owner would think to go for help is a city council meeting. Yet, Claire Marshall Crowell of Nashville, TN’s A. Marshall Family Foods, Inc. did just that.

Crowell not only runs her family’s businesses, but she’s also President of the Nashville Originals, an independent restaurant association representing locally owned hospitality businesses. The Nashville Originals help restaurant owners and operators to promote their businesses while sharing knowledge and resources. The group has also helped connect business owners to local government by working with other industry organizations like the National Restaurant Association’s Nashville Kitchen Cabinet.

Crowell has long understood that restaurant workers struggle with commuting to restaurants in Nashville, as well as the cost and lack of availability of parking. The main challenge with depending on public transit are the routes and hours. As it is in many booming cities, it’s difficult for workers in Nashville to live close to where new restaurants and bars are opening. As rents have risen, workers are moving to areas away from downtown – making bus routes and schedules more important. Buses need to run into more neighborhoods outside the urban core, as well as run outside of what’s considered peak hours in order to match the work schedules of many riders.

Through her work with the Nashville Originals, Crowell and other business owners started talking to the Nashville City Council and the Metro Nashville Transit Authority, or MTA. They found a very receptive audience.

“They (the MTA) don’t actually hear from a lot of people,” she explained. “It was literally the first time they had heard the complaint that we can’t get our people back home. That it wasn’t just about moving tourists around. It was also about all those businesses that bring in all that tax revenue that have people who have to get home. It was a lightbulb moment for them.”

Many workers were stuck with long waits on routes with limited service – in many cases the buses didn’t even run late enough to get them back home. Clearly, the limited public transportation routes and schedules were impacting the ability of businesses to attract new workers.

It turned out the timing was right for Crowell – Nashville Mayor Megan Barry has made public transportation a centerpiece of her administration. Her long-term plan includes light rail and other transit initiatives, but she was also working on short-term improvements to help solve some immediate problems. The Nashville Kitchen Cabinet conducted a survey of hospitality businesses and shared the results with the Metro Council, who was evaluating the Mayor’s budget. The city approved new budget and expanded routes and hours for its buses in September.

“The recent expansion was a small step that increased service into some underserved communities,” Crowell said. “We’re really hurting for people and getting people into where the businesses are located is really crucial. Though we can’t take all the credit, there were a lot of voices in that conversation, they were really responsive to us in terms of wanting to listen.”

With more buses running more often, workers can get to their jobs cheaper and safer than before. Waits have declined and since transfer fees were eliminated, it now costs less for many people to get to their jobs.

When it comes to talking to decision makers in government there’s no reason to limit the conversation to the city council – Crowell has made a point to talk to both state and federal lawmakers as well.

“They are always really eager to hear from the local restaurants that are in their districts,” she said of congress members. “They really seem to light up when it’s a place in their district they go when they’re home. But don’t take it personally if they don’t meet you personally. And pay special attention to the secretary and the staff. At the end of the day, we all know it’s they who are really the gatekeepers.”

By actively engaging with local, state and federal governments about the needs of the hospitality industry, owners and operators can influence policies that directly affect their labor pools – making it easier to find workers and keep their businesses growing.

Jack Hott

Jack Hott has more than 20 years experience in the hospitality industry. Along the way he’s flipped burgers, tossed pizzas and spilled a lot of wine on white table cloths.

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