Spicy margarita at Republic Cantina
Spicy margarita at Republic Cantina Credit: Chris Svetlik

Sydney Salazar follows Republic Cantina on Instagram. The marketing manager of Protocol, a technology news source, is a fan of the Tex-Mex restaurant in Truxton Circle and depended on its breakfast tacos during the most isolating days of the pandemic. She read their updates on operating hours and specials on social media. 

Fast forward to today and restaurants, including Republic Cantina, look and feel like they used to. Only they’re not. The local hospitality industry remains in the throes of a staffing crisis that’s just as much a labor shortage as a labor movement. Many servers, bartenders, cooks, and managers left D.C. or left the profession for employment sectors with benefits, higher wages, and more time with friends and family. 

Some restaurants turned to the staff members who stuck around and offered them referral bonuses if they helped bring in their industry brethren to fill jobs. But those referrals eventually dried up. Republic Cantina found itself with more demand from diners than they could adequately staff, especially in the dining room.

“We weren’t getting the candidates we need,” co-owner Chris Svetlik says. “On a whim we were thinking creatively about the resources at our disposal and about who might want to help us out.” He considered the nine-to-five crowd who might have enough of a crush on the restaurant to pick up some shifts, no experience necessary. There’s a history of hobby jobs in the District. And who couldn’t use some extra money in one of the most expensive cities in the country?

Svetlik published a series of Instagram stories that were transparent about the cantina’s staffing struggles. He specifically called for office workers to apply. “A lot of people see listings and say, ‘I’m not a restaurant person,'” Svetlik explains. “But we hire on personality and train for the rest. As long as they care about what we’re doing and are friendly, they can work here.” 

Sometimes veteran and green employees can clash if there aren’t good training protocols in place, but Svetlik says everyone was OK with potentially hiring newbies. “It means extra sets of hands,” he says. “The previous couple of months were intense and there were lots of nights where we were in the weeds for five hours.”

Responses to the Instagram stories poured in. Thirteen people wanted a job. “Suddenly we were feeling comfortable about adding on segments of service,” he says. “We’re reopening late night happy hour. There was something gratifying in seeing a lot of folks who wanted to help out.” 

Salazar was one of them. She’s one of two new employees who were hired after seeing the Instagram stories. City Paper caught up with her while she was having her shift drink—a gratis glass of ranch water—on the Republic Cantina patio after working brunch. Sometimes she hosts, other times she serves.

The restaurant is accommodating when it comes to scheduling Salazar’s shifts because of her full-time job in media. Salazar works weekends and one weeknight shift. “The call-in time is later,” she says. “Some restaurants you have to get in at 3 or 4 p.m.”

While Republic Cantina is open to hiring and training novices, Salazar has restaurant experience. She worked at Town Hall in Glover Park during college. “I had one training shift and rolled back into things,” she says. “A lot of larger restaurants have massive menus, which means you have to do research and memorize. Here, I was able to pick things up because I’ve been there so many times.”

Salazar recommends picking up a restaurant gig to others. “Working in the service industry is good experience regardless, and it’s more of a social job,” she says. “It’s a good time. The industry is totally struggling. It’s a good time to help out and make money at the same time. Win win.”

Svetlik too says others should consider this approach as long as managers are down with providing the extra training. It helps that Republic Cantina has a strong pool to pull from. The restaurant has a strong contingent of neighborhood regulars and a devoted Texas ex-pat community that both dine with gusto.

“The lesson for me was even saying the words nine-to-fivers flipped the switch for a lot of people and got them to apply,” Svetlik says. “A lot of non-industry folks are aware of the struggles restaurants are facing and want to help but are not sure how beyond patronizing local spots and tipping well.”