For some Longboat Key businesses, it’s not easy finding people who want to wait tables or stock shelves on one of the top-ranked islands in the U.S.
The industries that keep Longboat Key running are backed by a workforce mostly made up of workers commuting from off the island. Many business owners share the struggles of finding workers that are willing to commute, especially during the busy season.
The town of Longboat Key experienced its own struggles filling vacancies, most recently in the police and fire rescue departments. Both the police and fire chiefs, along with Town Manager Howard Tipton, realized the town had fallen out of a competitive salary range. This led to reevaluating contacts and ratifying new union contracts for both departments. The contracts reduce the number of steps between salary raises and provide more substantial retirement benefits for the police department.
Human Resources Manager Lisa Silvertooth said she noticed an increase in applications since they brought on more take-home vehicles for police officers
When hiring town employees during the season, Silvertooth said it’s tough. Potential candidates experience the traffic firsthand while driving to the interviews, she said.
“I always stress to all of my new hires, I don’t hide it,” Silvertooth said. “I let everyone know that the end of January through April it’s busy. You don’t make your doctor’s appointment in February, March or April because you won’t make it there.”
Silvertooth mentioned that some of her general employees can work a day or two remotely, which helps at times. She’s also recently been hiring more temps that work less than 20 hours a week. These employees are usually residents, which Silvertooth said means traffic won’t be too much of a problem then.
Additionally, Silvertooth said a couple of years ago the town entered a deal with Longboat Key Fitness on Bay Isles Parkway. Town employees were then more inclined to use the gym close to work rather than try to hit the road at 5 p.m. when traffic may be heaviest.
Building a business
Debra Murphy opened Ventura’s Italian Kitchen & Wine Bar in Whitney Beach Plaza in November 2022. The space was previously Bayou Tavern, but Murphy bought the business and continued the lease in the building.
With buying the business, some staff carried over, but Murphy still had to hire a lot of workers.
“When I first opened, I was really struggling to find staff,” Murphy said. “I was advertising on Indeed, using every social media platform that I could. It was ridiculous to try and get people to come work out here.”
During those tougher times, Murphy said she relied on friends and family to get things started. Her son came over from Miami with friends, her husband bussed tables and friends that lived on the Key were bartending and bussing. Murphy even flew her mother in to be her hostess.
Now, she said she has a great staff, though everyone is part-time because it's seasonal. She worries a lot less now, though.
Murphy said the hours she expects staff to come in work well with the peak traffic times. She said everyone comes in around noon or 1 p.m. By that time, she said most people are already on the beach. Then, as long as her staff leaves around 8 or 9 p.m., they don’t have too many traffic problems. Sometimes, though, she said the first employee to leave will signal the others to let them know if traffic is bad and they should wait.
“It’s hard out here, it really is,” Murphy said.
The commute, though, is one of the biggest drawback in finding staff, according to Murphy. If workers are coming from the north end, traffic is usually worse. Murphy herself commutes from Bradenton, and has staff from Bradenton, Palmetto and Parrish. A bartender from Parrish, Danelle Madigan, could have anywhere from a 45-minute to an hour-and-a-half commute when not in season.
One way Murphy got people to work at Ventura’s was higher pay.
“I have to pay more to staff than I would if I was on the mainland,” she said.
Murphy heard from other local restaurateurs that paying staff well is the key to hiring and keeping staff. But this means that profit margins are lower.
Another drawback Murphy sees is the lack of public transportation through Longboat Key. There’s no public transportation on weekends, and the shuttles that do run during the week don’t operate late enough, she said. There are shuttles available in both Manatee and Sarasota County on demand, but Murphy said that’s not ideal for staff in a restaurant business.
She said she would love to see a water taxi, and thinks there’s a lot of potential either by Whitney Beach Plaza or other docks nearby.
Sharon Haas is one of Murphy's employees who, as Hass puts it, “came with the building.” Haas started working there about two years ago because she liked the restaurant. She said she likes it even more now, especially working with Murphy. Haas lives on the island, so traffic really isn’t an issue for her.
“During season, traffic is horrendous,” she said. "If worst came to worse, I could talk or I could ride my bike.”
Owner of The Lazy Lobster Michael Garey said he has felt similar pressures from traffic. Staffing on Longboat Key is something he is very passionate about.
“Let’s face it, you move (to Longboat) for the lifestyle,” Garey said. “That lifestyle is created by the workforce.”
Over the years, Garey needed to implement changes to the business’ hours of operation to help his staff. He said the restaurant used to be open during season from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., but about a year ago he changed the hours to 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Most of the workers were coming from Bradenton, and he said getting them in earlier was key in order to avoid sitting in traffic for hours.
Garey also recalled struggles opening for Sunday lunch in the past. He said there were a couple times when the Cortez Bridge malfunctioned, leaving his workers stuck on the opposite side. The Lazy Lobster couldn’t open for lunch service then, and Garey had to modify his Sunday hours of operation.
“All those changes were done proactively with the workforce in mind,” Garey said.
Worth the drive
Sebastian Villaseca started at The Lazy Lobster eight years ago as a server. At that time, he was living near Cortez and sometimes had to face the long seasonal traffic.
Now, Villaseca has two years under his belt as head chef and lives in Apollo Beach. Without traffic, it’s about an 80-minute commute, he said. There have been times when it’s taken him three hours to get to work.
As head chef, Villaseca said he has to be at work around 10 a.m. and leaves around 8 or 9 p.m. during the season, from October to May. He said there are other chefs there as early as 7 a.m. in order to prepare for the day.
Being in charge of the kitchen, there have been many times Villaseca received calls of employees coming in late due to traffic. Many of his cooks have two jobs as well, and traffic can sometimes make it difficult to get to that next job, he said.
He also recalled some times when workers would be hired, but then realized after a week of work that the drive was too far.
Despite the sometimes hours of commuting, Villaseca said the job makes everything worth it. If he doesn’t have to take a day off, he won’t.
“I really enjoy cooking. I enjoy making people happy,” Villaseca said.
He said he has a family feeling with his coworkers, and really enjoys working with the team. The atmosphere of the restaurant is another thing he likes, being a part of the relationship between the restaurant and its regulars.
And, of course, he said driving past the beaches is a hard view to beat.
Carter Weinhofer is the Longboat Key news reporter for the Observer. Originally from a small town in Pennsylvania, he moved to St. Petersburg to attend Eckerd College until graduating in 2023. During his entire undergraduate career, he worked at the student newspaper, The Current, holding positions from science reporter to editor-in-chief.