HOMEWOOD, Ala. (WIAT) — Restaurants around central Alabama are dealing with staffing shortages as more people return to dining rooms after being vaccinated from COVID-19.

While several industries are also coping with similar struggles, restaurant owners have really been feeling the pinch.

“If you come in tonight, I get to cook,” said Hal Craig, owner of Tostadas in Homewood.

For Craig, the good news is that customers are returning. He believes stimulus money is also a factor in the uptick in business.

The bad news is that he’s had fewer team members to meet the needs of customers.

“We’ve got the business coming in and other restaurants and people I know, they’ve got business coming into the restaurants, but sometimes there’s not enough people to support it,” said Craig.

Tostadas closed for lunch Monday to give its lead kitchen employee a breather.

“We couldn’t do this without him and he was going on almost 14 days without a day off, so it was one of those, after a busy weekend and we’re going into another nice weather week, we’re like, let’s just take a day off and recoup,” said Craig.

Some larger chain restaurants have started to offer bonuses to get people to work. Hiring bonuses, retention bonuses, and referral bonuses have been advertised at various businesses near Birmingham.

Restaurants are raising the pay for employees.

“We are upping our rates of what we pay as well as benefits that we offer across the board are pretty substantial,” said Austyn Evans with Shrimp Basket.

Shrimp Basket is offering a new vehicle as a hiring incentive.

“This was strictly a way for our team members who are out there on the front-facing this every day to have an opportunity to partake in something fun and exciting but in the end to also really win a car,” said Evans.

Economic experts say you may see more bonuses over the next few months.

“Probably by the end of the summer we can expect to see it balance out a little bit, but right now companies are chasing employees, not the other way around,” said Patrick J. Murphy, Goodrich Chair of Entrepreneurship at UAB.

Murphy said companies will likely continue to get creative to attract employees. While the restaurant and hospitality industries have had trouble hiring, he said entrepreneurs also have trouble finding workers.

While salary is often one of the most important factors considered by applicants, Murphy said flexibility is also at the top of the list.

“The companies that are able to be generous with their time and their flexibility in addition to the wage that they pay I think are also going to be competitive,” said Murphy.

In the meantime, business owners like Hal Craig wonder if hiring struggles could lead to increased food prices for customers in the future.

“I remember when you could go out to lunch for $6 or $7, maybe soon when you go out to eat lunch, it might be $15 or $20, just because a restaurant has to charge more to be able to keep the people that are going to keep it up and running,” Craig said.

Some restaurant veterans fear staffing shortages could force owners to move to quick service options that bypass the need for traditional servers or host positions.

Craig is optimistic that better days are ahead but hopes customers will be patient as they learn the challenges eateries are facing.

“Stuff like this makes awareness, so if a customer comes in and don’t get sat as fast as they normally did, or they see a server running around like crazy and they’re like, ‘why don’t they have more people? But this is just raising that awareness that this is what is going on. I don’t know a single restaurant right now that is fully staffed,” said Craig.