Last week, Dickinson lost one of its oldest restaurants. Not because business was bad. Not because the food was inedible. Not because of a fire or some other act of God. No.
The Bonanza steakhouse and buffet that has been serving customers for 35 years was forced to shut its doors for good Monday because it could only find 11 employees. That wasn’t nearly enough for franchise owner Bob Wade to keep the business running.
The closure of Bonanza should be a wake-up call not only to Dickinson business owners, but to those who set the price of housing. It’s the clearest sign we’ve seen so far that the cost of living in Dickinson is so high, even successful businesses can’t make it unless they pay part-time workers more than $15 an hour.
It’s time to find a balance and help low- and medium-income workers before more businesses — especially restaurants — raise the white flag and lock their doors permanently.
First, the obvious. Rent needs to come down, call it greed if you want but the reason people charge outrageous rent is simply because they can. Unfortunately, until the day returns that landlords can’t find tenants and have to resort again to move-in deals, it’s a problem residents and businesses in Dickinson are going to have to bear.
Still, if a landlord is charging $1,500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, they’re not just a part of the problem — they’re the root cause. Hats off to the few people out there who charge anywhere near pre-oil boom levels for rent. And yes, they do exist.
The fact is some people can’t afford to pay that much to live here, can’t afford a house and don’t have four other people to split the rent. Likewise, most businesses can’t afford to pay workers oilfield wages.
No matter how busy a business is, there’s still a bottom line to meet, and paying employees more and more just to keep them walking through the door doesn’t make economic sense unless customers are lined up out the door.
Business owners throughout Dickinson tell stories of struggles to retain employees. It’s like the old saying goes, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” Especially when more green is being offered on that other side. When Walmart or Menards — which aren’t exactly immune to this either — can offer $5 an hour more, what’s stopping a part-time fry cook from leaving a restaurant to become a full-time shelf stocker with benefits?
Businesses must begin rethinking their recruitment and retention strategies. Those that have made advertising blitzes to entice potential workers with offers of signing bonuses or housing assistance seem to be doing OK. Those who only put up old-fashioned “Help Wanted” signs and don’t offer employment incentives are the ones losing out. It may not sound ideal, but that method of employee recruitment has to become the reality of running a business until things change in this city.
After all, we’re still at least two years away from having enough apartments and affordable housing to stabilize rental prices or, God willing, force them to drop.
The worse news is that Bonanza isn’t the only Dickinson restaurant to find itself stuck in this situation.
Multiple fast-food places either close their doors early or shut down completely at times due to lack of workers. Most at least keep the drive-thru window open.
For the past couple of weeks, rumors have persisted that at least two other longtime and seemingly profitable eating places will soon shut down because of employee shortages. Thankfully, nothing has happened yet. But who’s to say it won’t?
Stark County has 1.4 percent unemployment, according to the latest statistics. There always seems to be more jobs than there people willing to work. On Saturday, Job Service North Dakota’s website listed 682 positions open in Dickinson alone, and new businesses are constantly opening.
Dickinson’s leaders must keep pushing forward on infrastructure projects so more affordable housing can get off the ground. This is not a city where businesses should be shutting down.