While the boom in San Francisco has helped boost business, shops and restaurants are finding that they have no one to make the sales.

“We’re desperate,” said Jefferson McCarley, the owner of Mission Bicycle.

McCarley said he once chased a customer for two blocks down the street after thinking that his noticeably sunny attitude would make him good at sales.  Unfortunately for Mission Bicycle, the man was a medical professional.

Chewy Marzolo, who manages Escape From New York pizza on 22nd Street, is hiring a prep cook and has been looking for a few weeks. That used to be the easiest position to fill, “because until recently, that’s something that everyone here knew how to do,” he said. Signs in window would fill the position.

This time, no one came in to apply, so he went to Craigslist. Twelve people responded to the ad, and only two showed up for interviews. Many candidates had more administrative experience than cooking experience.

“It’s because the working class of San Francisco is disappearing,” said Marzolo. Despite the recent minimum wage hike, he said, the city is too expensive. “Even with that jump, which is huge… People can’t afford to work for it.”

At Harrington Galleries, a furniture store on Valencia Street that has been in business for more than 40 years, finding workers is a struggle.  

“It’s very hard to find people to work,” said owner-manager Fiona O’Connor. “People can drive for Uber.”

O’Connor needs a part-time manager with some experience in interior design, who would start at around $16 an hour. After a month, she still hasn’t found anyone. She hired a recruiter, for the first time ever, finding that Craigslist and a hiring sign in the window weren’t cutting it.

“People don’t even come in,” she said. “It’s hard for a small business to pay high wages.”

The job has attractive qualities, O’Connor said – 16th and Valencia is a nice place to work, and her business has been a springboard for former employees to reach other successful positions. But the great location comes at a cost.

“The cost of living is very high,” O’Connor acknowledged. She also noted that the cost of commuting from the East Bay on BART quickly cuts into $16 an hour.

“So how far are you commuting, and is it worth it?,” she said. “Or do you want to share an apartment with, like, 10 people?”

At the taqueria Pancho Villa, the problem is similar.

“It’s very hard, because they want a lot of money,” said Fernando Pérez, who supervises the 16th Street branch of the taqueria.

The popular restaurant makes money, Pérez said, but most of it goes back to supplies and to paying the workers. Many of the location’s 48 workers regularly work overtime, which is required to be compensated at a higher rate. Most employees commute from the East Bay.

Under Qualified, Yet Picky

Still, the weekend rushes bring throngs of people through the doors, and Pancho Villa needs three or four more full-time employees – but most people, Pérez said, don’t want to work weekends.

“They come and apply, but they want office hours. Of course, it’s not an office job,” he said.

The taqueria has been hiring for six months with some luck attracting applicants, but less luck in getting them to stay.

“Sometimes employees come, learn a little bit, and go somewhere else,” Pérez said. “I think people send employees here to learn our recipes.”

Isabel Valdez, whose mother owns El Salvador Restaurant on Mission Street between 18th and 19th streets, said she’s had signs in the window seeking a cook and a bilingual waiter or waitress for more than six months.

“Six or seven years ago, waitresses and waiters could work in just Spanish, but now it has to be bilingual,” she said. Pupusas, too, require particular skill, and Valdez is looking for a cook with experience and can’t spend too much time training a new hire – especially not on the rising minimum wage.

“Workers, they’re getting good wages, but everything is expensive,” she said, citing the rising costs of meat, eggs and other supplies.

Unlike some of the Valencia Street merchants, Valdez said nobody has come in asking her for more than what she’s offering, because they come from the East Bay, where the minimum wage is lower.

At Taylor Stitch, a clothing shop on Valencia Street, hiring is a challenge, but manager Kenny Fee said this might be in part because of the shop’s high standards. A strong brand image and a preference for hiring workers living in the city narrows the options some, he said.

The store has been looking to fill a retail position for about a month, and while there has been plenty of interest, many candidates are simply not qualified for the job.

“We don’t pay minimum wage, so we don’t ask for the minimum,” Fee said.

Working On A Wage Hike

Inevitably, the cost of living is a factor in finding employees, and many come with demands.

“The pay to rent ratio is kinda crazy,” Fee said. “People can’t work for the pay…People are very upfront about what they’re looking for.”

McCarley at Mission Bicycle is hiring retail staff for between $15 and $18 an hour. One candidate, who turned out to be homeless during his job interview, told McCarley he needed a job with an annual salary of about $80,000. Many others simply don’t show up to interviews. Marzolo at Escape From New York pizza has had candidates make it all the way to the training process before disappearing without a trace. 

“Honestly, to survive in San Francisco on $15, $16, $17 is not easy,” McCarley acknowledged. Which, he and others observed, is simply resulting in driving people out of the city and attracting more commuter workers.

And the wage hike itself, intended to make the city more livable for hourly workers, is making it tough on business, they said.  Minimum hourly wage rose from $9.79 in 2010 to $12.25 this year.

“It’s just too fast,” said Marzolo. He has lived in the city for 30 years and worked 10 of those years at Rainbow Grocery cooperative. The hike, he said, is wearing on loyal workers who have seen their wages rise, but now get paid the same as brand new hires. “I can’t afford to bring them up,” Marzolo added.

What’s more, stricter immigration controls have further whittled away at the employee base. “There are qualified people out there for small businesses,” Marzolo said. “But they’re living in fear.”