The national unemployment rate is near historic lows, local housing costs are at a historic high, and local restaurants are having a hard time hiring workers.
If these trends continue, the end result could be a $30 cheeseburger, according to Rob Ittner, the 18-year owner of Rustique Bistro in Aspen and the restaurant representative on the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s board of directors.
“I have never seen staffing challenges like we are seeing today in Aspen,” Ittner said during the public comment session at Aspen City Council’s regular meeting on Tuesday.
He added that he doesn’t know the solution, but suggested that spiking housing prices over the past three years, as well as increasing competition in the marketplace, are to blame. The current housing market and employee base appears unable to sustain Aspen’s economy, said Ittner, a former county commissioner who is running again for a seat on the board in November against incumbent Patti Clapper. That places the problem squarely in the government’s lap, Ittner said.
In addition, the national jobs report released on Friday shows that U.S. employers added 223,000 jobs in May, dropping the national unemployment rate to 3.8 percent, the lowest since 2000.
Ittner also pointed to recent sales tax collection reports that show the restaurant sector as a whole in Aspen was down 2 percent year-to-date through March. Meanwhile, the city as a whole was up 3 percent.
He said that in his conversations with other restaurateurs, many are reporting a staffing deficient going into the summer season. Multiple new establishments are set to open this summer as well.
This creates upward pressure on wages every time a worker moves from one restaurant to the next, Ittner said, with increasing hourly rates needed to entice the limited help that is available. With overall receipts flat and increasing rents, there is only one way to make up the extra costs, and that involves raising menu pricing.
“It is going to be more and more challenging to keep things affordable in this market,” he said. “It’s really the only place for sustainability where we can make a difference, which is making our hamburger 17 dollars, 18 dollars, 19 dollars, 25 dollars, 30 dollars to sustain a profitability level to be in business here.”
The burger on the Rustique bar menu — featuring Angus beef, caramelized onions and gruyere cheese, plus a side of fries or salad — is currently priced at $19, according to a menu posted on the restaurant’s website, so enjoy it at those prices while you still can.