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Hospitality hub: Grand Forks County has high percentage of food and hotel jobs, but employees are hard to hire

Jeremy Hutchinson, a cook at the Ground Round, tends the grill during the noon rush Friday, March 2. (Eric Hylden / Forum News Service)1 / 2
Tabitha Blooflat, a server, bartender, and manager at the Ground Round, serves Tori, left, and Lexi Gullett of Bottineau on Friday, March 2. (Eric Hylden / Forum News Service)2 / 2

GRAND FORKS — Grand Forks County has one of North Dakota's highest percentages of workers in the food services and accommodations industry, but finding help for the sector isn't easy.

"I've seen the quantity of applicants rise a little bit in the short term here, but overall it's been pretty tough to find a warm body," said Matt Walkowiak, owner of the Ground Round in Grand Forks. "We probably went the better half of last year with 20 positions available."

Restaurants, hotels and bars make up 10.9 percent of Grand Forks County's employee distribution, according to Job Service North Dakota data from last year's third quarter, the most recently available information. Rising above the state rate of 8.5 percent, Grand Forks County ranks fourth in the state for percentage of food services and accomodation employees, falling only behind the counties of Billings (16.8 percent), Ramsey (13.2 percent) and Ward (12 percent).

"Being selfish, yes, I think we do have too many restaurants," Walkowiak said. "Something opens, something closes has kind of been the trend."

The high number could mean destination cities like Grand Forks can support more restaurants and hotels, said Keith Reitmeier, Grand Forks' customer service area manager for Job Service.

"People are traveling there for commerce, for other reasons," he said. "I think that's why you may see a higher percent in some of our larger communities that draw people from great distances away."

Grand Forks has a great pool of candidates to draw from, said Guy Wentink, who manages the Chick-fil-A that opened last fall in Grand Forks. But he acknowledged it is hard to find the high-quality workers he is looking for.

"Hiring is my No. 1 challenge," he said. "I'm from North Carolina, and when a Chick-fil-A opens, you have employees wrapped around the building trying to get in."

'High turning industry'

The county's number of business establishments in the food services and accommodations industry has mostly stayed steady in recent years as businesses open and close, much like North Dakota's numbers. Employment tallies for that sector in Grand Forks County and in North Dakota have steadily dropped from 4,535 in 2012 to 4,336 in the third quarter last year.

That may be because establishment traffic is down, Reitmeier said, but his data tend to show a good number of open jobs for the industry.

Grand Forks County had 212 establishments as of the third quarter, or about 8 percent of North Dakota's 2,554 employers for the food services and accommodation industry. Cass took first for the number of establishments during the third quarter with 494 employers. Burleigh was second with 240 and Ward County took third with 215. Williams rounded out the top five with 143.

Cass and Burleigh topped the list with 10,372 and 5,569 employees respectively.

Cities in North Dakota, particularly in the Oil Patch, have seen rapid growth in recent years, Reitmeier said. He also noticed restaurants come and go.

"People are always looking for the latest and greatest or the newest," he said. "This seems to be a highly turning industry."

Walkowiak said he didn't know what a healthy number of restaurants looks like, but he feels business has been slower than in previous years. The Ground Round saw a 30,000-person guest count drop from 2014 to 2017, he said.

"We went from a peak in 2014 of having 200,000 people through the door to 2017 to 170,000 people through the door," he said.

He attributed the drop in business to a weak Canadian dollar and competition from other restaurants. Opening new restaurants doesn't necessarily mean more people will come out to eat.

"It basically just makes the pie smaller for everyone when another establishment opens up because it is another choice," he said.

Wentink said he couldn't say if there are too many restaurants in Grand Forks, but he feels it has a diverse field of eateries.

"I love the fact that we have a lot of restaurants, a lot of competition, a lot of places to eat, but I don't know if it is too many," he said.

Chick-fil-A noticed a "large entourage" of people wanted one of the chain's restaurants in Grand Forks, Wentink said, adding the franchise's research indicated there was a market for the chain.

Fargo's Chick-fil-A opened several weeks ago, and Wentink said the company is considering opening branches in other parts of the state.

As of Friday, the restaurant had about 75 workers, still short of its 100-employee goal. He attributed the challenge of hiring for Chick-fil-A in Grand Forks to the community not knowing a lot about the chain's culture.

He feels he has plenty of applicants to choose from—six potential workers were scheduled to come in Friday to interview for positions at the restaurant, he said. It could take a few months to be fully staffed, he said, adding the restaurant only has been open for 4½ months.

"I won't hire six," he said of Friday's interviews. "I may hire one because I'm looking for the very best of the best."

Innovation

The Canadian dollar has strengthened in the past year, and business at restaurants has slowly trended upward, Walkowiak said, something he hopes will continue.

Occupancy rates also were slightly up last year, said Julie Rygg, executive director of the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau. Hotels reported an average occupancy rate of 52.9 percent last year, but Rygg emphasized that only half of the hotels in Grand Forks report their numbers.

The city is hosting a lot of conventions and sports tournaments in the coming months, some of which have never been hosted before, she said.

"We're hopeful for a good late winter and early spring," she said.

However, the industry has to be creative when attracting patrons, Walkowiak said. That includes incentives for employees, marketing, community involvement and reach out initiatives. Walkowiak noted Ground Round's delivery service.

"If they're not coming to us, we're going to go to them," he said.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248
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