Emmaus restaurant considers closing amid staffing struggles; experts say problem is everywhere

Written by on September 1, 2022

Emmaus restaurant considers closing amid staffing struggles; experts say problem is everywhere

By Jay Bradley
September 1, 2022

Susan Roberts, owner of Wally’s Deli in Emmaus, says staffing shortages threaten the business’s ability to stay open. (Jay Bradley/WLVR News)

EMMAUS, Pa. – For about two years now, Wally’s Deli has had to reduce the hours of its Emmaus location – not because of reduced demand, but because of a staffing shortage.

“I wasn’t getting applications,” owner Susan Roberts said.

Between rising costs for ingredients and labor, the business has had to cut back, with Roberts dedicating time between the Emmaus restaurant and its Allentown location.

While the business has been a staple in Emmaus since it opened 33 years ago, recent months have been a struggle of not having the resources of a larger business to weather the challenges, Roberts said.

“We don’t have a corporation behind us, so it does make it a little harder,” she said. “I mean, yes, the cost of living has gone up for everybody and I totally understand that. But the cost of everything else has gone up extremely, also.”

Between that and other reasons for staffing shortages, Roberts said she has found it hard to attract and retain staff.

“I don’t have [resources] coming from anywhere else,” she said. “So in that way, yes, we’re very hindered as far as we’re able to offer signup bonuses and different things like that.“

After one of her longtime staff members decided to leave, the threat of having to shut the doors of the location came into view.

“She’s a single mom, and I understandably cannot afford the different things that she needs as far as insurance and all that kind of stuff,” Roberts said.

“So I’m very happy for her and wishing her well in her next adventure and am very grateful that she’s been with me as long as she’s been, but now it’s getting to the point where I just can’t piecemeal it together anymore with the main person leaving.”

That led to long days, shorter opening hours, and overall, a hard time for the owner.

As it stands, if Roberts was not present at the Emmaus deli, the doors were not open, doubly challenging due to her responsibilities at the other Wally’s location in Allentown.

Staff shortages a national focus

Staffing shortages have been given a national focus throughout the country since the coronavirus pandemic began, which has come about from a variety of contributing factors.

Ashley Lorah, manager of Emmaus Main Street Partners with the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, said she was sad to hear the news about Wally’s deli, given that the restaurant has been a community staple.

Lorah said such staffing struggles have affected a lot of local small businesses.

“It is these retail and restaurant businesses who are really the face of the community and we need them to, like, establish that sense of community,” Lorah said. “But they’re all struggling to get staffing. I think it’s a mixture of finances, and other expectations that people have.”

Lorah said it’s possible that recent movements of employees to be able to work from home and have more scheduling freedom, as well as greater benefits, has created an issue for local businesses looking to fill their staff.

“Usually it’s just like one or two people…really trying to hold it together because they had this shared vision and this dream of starting this company,” Lorah said.

“They don’t have the bandwidth to put together all these additional benefits that you see with bigger corporations that are sucking those people away and also offering that work from home benefit. So there’s just not even a possibility of competition, like small businesses are just really stuck.”

Lorah said collaborations such as what the chamber provides can help offer health insurance plans and advertising benefits that may be out of reach for small businesses going it alone.

Otherwise, advertising on tools such as CareerLink can get the word out about job openings, and playing to the community may help garner attention, as well.

But Lorah said she worries that such outreach may not translate into long-term support.

Announcement brings support – and offers

Roberts was driven to make a post on the Talk of the Town: Emmaus, PA neighborhood Facebook page, to inform the community about her current struggles, and with the hope that someone may come to fill the spot she needs.

If not, the business would be shuttering its doors in the town it was founded in.

“I wanted to let my people know that, unfortunately, I might end up closing,” Roberts said. “I’ve been telling, you know, people here and there, but I didn’t want to just be closed and I wanted to get it out there so, you know, I had time to say goodbye if I had to.”

After the announcement was posted, she said, dozens of people reached out with direct messages and comments on the post of support and fondness for the deli, saddened at its potential closure.

And some applications started to come in.

Others, at the same time, have approached inquiring about a potential sale of the location.

“We’re not sure now [that we will sell the location], as such with the positive feedback and the flood of applications, if that would be an avenue that I would go,” Roberts said.

“There’s a lot of different factors. Thirty-three years is a long time.”

She said neither she, nor her husband Wally, “are getting any younger.”

A sign in the window at Wally’s was given by child of a regular customer to the store after the Facebook post was made.

Roberts said right now, after the attention she received, the outlook is much better.

“We had somebody in today,” she said. “I will tonight be going through and sitting through a bunch of others’ [applications] and figuring out what works and how to fit things in so I will be making other phone calls this evening and do more training over the weekend.

“I would think through all the applications I got, it all is looking pretty darn positive as far as hopefully being able to stay.”

While longer-term concerns and fears still exist for the business, and the future remains uncertain, Roberts said she is grateful to the support she has received so far for the business.

“It just blows my mind in many ways, and as I mentioned before, a good dose of humility, which is pretty cool,” she said.

The exterior of Wally’s Deli in Emmaus.

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