Reno restaurant owners search for answers to staffing woes

Gustavo Velasco, executive chef at Squeeze In, talks about the restaurant chain’s challenges staffing their kitchens in Reno-Sparks and beyond during a roundtable forum held Aug. 17, 2021, at The Jesse in downtown Reno.

Gustavo Velasco, executive chef at Squeeze In, talks about the restaurant chain’s challenges staffing their kitchens in Reno-Sparks and beyond during a roundtable forum held Aug. 17, 2021, at The Jesse in downtown Reno. Photo by Kaleb Roedel.

Over the course of a single day in early July, Gustavo Velasco, executive chef at Squeeze In, said he called about 100 people who had applied for a slew of kitchen jobs open at the franchise’s several restaurants.

Three people answered their phone. About 20 called back. Some who scheduled live kitchen auditions flaked when the day came. And many who did show up proved they couldn’t cut it — in more ways than one.

“Some would lie and say they have all of these experiences,” Velasco said. “And as soon as I see them chop a bell pepper, I had to stop them from annihilating that bell pepper. I’m willing to give you the job, but you’ve got to be truthful to us so that I can put you in the right position.”

About two months later, the popular Squeeze In brunch spots — five of which are located in Sparks, Reno, Carson City and Truckee — have hired only 10 people out of a pool of more than 200 applicants.

“We went through a lot of what I call somewhat ‘fake applications,’” Velasco said.

Velasco’s struggle to fill kitchens with qualified workers is a microcosm of the staffing woes many small business owners and managers, especially in the hospitality industry, say they are experiencing across the greater Reno-Tahoe region.

Roughly 20 Reno-Sparks bar and restaurant owners gathered for the forum on Aug. 17. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW


Squeeze In was one of many restaurants to share their perspectives during a so-called “staffing emergency” brainstorming forum hosted by the Downtown Reno Partnership on Aug. 17 at The Jesse in downtown Reno.

Business owners in attendance got the chance to ask questions to members of the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR).

DETR staff also dispelled rumors that business owners have heard — such as people on unemployment benefits are making up to $25 per hour, or that some are receiving health benefits from the state.

One point of discussion was how business owners can hold people accountable who refuse an offer of employment or refuse to return to work.

Kasey Christensen, co-owner of Süp in Midtown Reno, speaks at forum while Reno+Sparks Chamber of Commerce CEO Ann Silver looks on. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel


Jenny Casselman, deputy director at DETR, said those people should be reported to the agency by emailing

Nevada law prohibits individuals from receiving unemployment benefits if they refuse to accept offers of suitable work or quit work, without good cause, according to DETR.

Of note, DETR on May 1 reinstated the work search requirement for unemployment, which had been suspended in 2020 due to massive layoffs throughout the pandemic.

“If you offer them a legitimate job and they decline it, we ask that you report that,” Casselman said on Aug. 17. “We require that individuals accept a job offer that is in line with their skill set. And if that’s not reported, then we have no way of knowing if they are actively engaging in workforce search activity.”

DETR members Jenny Casselman, left, and Christopher Robison were on hand for the forum. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel


The problem is some business owners are not sure if their emails are getting through — even if they are, they wonder if anything is being done to stop those refusing work.

Sabri Arslankara, co-owner of Pizzava pizzeria, said after he reported an individual refusing work, he received paperwork from DETR with “a bunch of questions” about the candidate that he didn’t have time to answer because he’s short-staffed. And he said the agency asked for a response by the next day.

“It’s not realistic for us to follow up,” Arslankara said.

Christopher Robison, an economist at DETR, said the Reno area currently has an unemployment rate of 4.9% and has recovered 90% of the jobs it lost during the pandemic. He added that food services have recovered 98% statewide.

Business owners at the Aug. 17 forum challenged that last figure.

When they asked Robison how DETR collects job recovery data, he said it’s based off of 60,000 businesses they survey every month. None of the roughly 20 business owners in attendance said they have received such a survey.

Kaya Stanley, left, co-owner of Old Granite Street Eatery, Rue Bourbon and Rounds Bakery in Reno, moderates the Aug. 17 forum, while Downtown Reno Partnership Marketing Manager Mike Higdon, looks on. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel


“That statistic just makes no sense,” said Kaya Stanley, co-owner of Life Tastes Good Co. which operates Old Granite Street Eatery, Rounds Bakery and Rue Bourbon. “And this isn’t just Reno, this is every restaurant across the country.”

Everyone also was interested to know if the extended federal unemployment insurance program may be extended. The benefits, which boosted payments by $300 a person each week, are set to expire Sept. 4.

Bill Chan, regional representative from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s office, said while he doesn’t have any “inside information,” there is no indication that an extension of federal benefits is on the table.

“This isn’t anything coming from the office, but based on things I have read, it doesn’t look like that should be a concern of yours if it is currently,” Chan said.

It was a rare moment when the business owners at the forum appeared to breathe, however slight, a sigh of relief.


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