As tourism remains steady, Marfa struggles to attract service industry professionals 

As tourism remains steady, Marfa struggles to attract service industry professionals

MARFA— The city of Marfa, like many cities around the country, is experiencing a shortage of service industry professionals to help keep restaurants, gas stations and other vital businesses operational. Many businesses are significantly understaffed and, despite solicitation, are not receiving a healthy number of job applicants. The local deficit of available service industry professionals reflects a nationwide trend of service workers seeking more sustainable employment outside of the industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mike Rodriguez, general manager of the smaller Stripes gas station on the west side of town, said he is currently seeking two more full-time employees, or three to four part-time sales associates to help run the business, but only one application for the job has been submitted in the past four months. John Ward, general manager of the larger Stripes on the east side of town, is also experiencing staffing shortages. Both managers are relatively new to their roles, and often have to work 16-17 hour days in order to keep the stores open. 

“They’re really wanting my particular location to go back to 24 hours,” said Ward. “But right now, I can’t do that because I don’t have enough staff. And you’re trying to find that right person that’s going to work the night shift, that plays a factor as well.”

In addition to operating gas pumps and convenience store aspects of the businesses, both locations also have food programs they need to hire staff to help operate. They are offering above minimum wage, one job listing said $11/hour to help operate the sandwich shop, and are able to raise pay for people with experience. Rodriguez said most people he tries to recruit are not interested in working so closely with the public or have restructured their lives due to COVID and may be working as a full-time childcare provider, for example.

“We’re still in the pandemic. It hasn’t ended. A lot of people are still leery,” said Rodriguez. “One minute, we’re the hero for being open during COVID, but then when we go to use the restroom, we’re getting chewed out. It’s a tough situation dealing with the public.” 

Rodriguez said it is hard for Stripes, as an employer, to compete with larger entities also actively hiring, like the Texas Department of Transportation or American Electric Power, who are willing to train people and able to offer higher wages.

Darby Hillman, former employee of Stellina and The Lost Horse, lived in Marfa for six years and left the service industry in March 2020 to pursue further education. Despite getting along well with coworkers, after years of being on her feet all day, liaising with customers and keeping up with the pace of the restaurant in her role as a cook, Hillman said she was burnt out.

“When the pandemic hit, and the sort of sense of community dissipated, it gave me the opportunity to really reflect on how my life had been operating for the years that I had been in service. I realized that I was really unhappy, and that it was a really sort of punishing job,” said Hillman. 

The rising cost of living in Marfa, shortage of affordable long-term housing, and noncompetitive pay are all contributing factors in Marfa’s inability to attract service workers, said Hillman.

“I think a lot of the places that service industry workers could potentially afford to live have been bought up and turned into hotel situations. It’s just an extremely expensive place to live now. The service industry is notoriously low paying for really hard work. I think that’s the number one challenge for a lot of people,” said Hillman.

In addition to the shrinking labor pool and lack of affordable housing, the pandemic contributed to health and safety concerns of service industry workers, said Hillman, who are oftentimes serving visitors from out of town who arrive with preconceived notions.

“There was a certain degree of entitlement among the tourists during the pandemic, when we were really trying to be very careful. At least many of us were. There was an attitude of ‘Where is everyone? Why is everything closed?” said Hillman. 

Jeremiah Tijerina, who grew up in Alpine, is currently working two jobs at Reata Restaurant in Alpine and the Water Stop in Marfa. Tijerina was attending Texas State University in San Marcos but decided to put his education on hold and move back home when classes went fully online. He said he works two jobs because while one offers a higher income, the other allows him to socialize with people from all over the U.S. 

“I pretty much chose to work in Marfa to be around more like-minded people and just having the opportunity to really connect with individuals from different places,” said Tijerina. 

In addition to working events like the Trans-Pecos Festival, Tijerina said he also finds the constant influx of out-of-towners a pleasant part of his jobs in the service industry. 

“More tourists means more customers at the restaurant, which means more tips for me,” said Tijerina. “I enjoy hearing different walks of life and gaining different perspectives on where people come from.” 

Tijerina said while he is working over 40 hours a week, meaning less time for friends and rest, for now he’s okay with that sacrifice. He also commutes from Alpine to Marfa regularly and finds the route daunting and tiring at night. The effects of the pandemic could be a major factor in why some service industry workers are wary of returning to work, he said. 

“The service industry is a place where people are packed together all day long. It’s just like constant people and constant germs. For some it could be that. I also think the customers have gotten a little bit more difficult,” said Tijerina. 

More cash tips could help motivate more people to hold service industry roles, Tijerina said. But unfortunately people are carrying less cash than they used to, partly due to the pandemic, he said. 

“You have that cash right then and there. I think that’s a great incentive to be in the service industry,” said Tijerina. “I mean, there’s people with degrees who are doing bigger things and at the end of the day, I could be making more money than them on certain days.” 

Jett’s Grill, the restaurant within the Hotel Paisano, is currently looking to hire 10 to 15 waiters and bartenders in order to be fully staffed, said Sy Wilson, front of house manager. Wilson, a native of Marfa, took over the role as front of house manager for the entire hotel last month and has been seeking new employees ever since. Despite a shortage of experienced front of house employees, the restaurant has continued to serve everyday customers and special events. 

“We are a tourism town, so yeah, we have to keep it going,” said Wilson.  

October has been a busy month for the Hotel Paisano, said Wilson, with back to back weddings almost every weekend. Wedding parties often split their time between the Paisano and Saint George hotels, said Wilson, opting for a historical wedding but modern rehearsal dinner, for example.

“It works great because with the shortage of staff, it gives us a break, or if they need that extra money, they can help out with the other event,” said Wilson. 

It is not uncommon for service workers to hold two to three part-time jobs in Marfa, since many businesses are not open enough hours to fill a 40-hour/week schedule. Jett’s is offering $2-3 hourly pay plus tips for servers, and a higher hourly wage for kitchen staff. Wilson said they are more willing to train inexperienced employees now versus before the pandemic started, but she has started to implement trial periods to make sure people are up for the gig after they fully understand the responsibilities and day to day. 

“We need people. For me, it’s an opportunity. I don’t care where you’re from, if you want that opportunity and that experience, we need those bodies. If you want to come and make money, well, then let’s go for it. Let’s do it. Because we are that tourism town. That’s what we’re based on now.” 

After Wilson takes a moment to reassure a visitor about their bar hours, she goes back to discussing how offering varied experiences for guests can come as a challenge for a small staff. For example, keeping their regular dining room open while hosting a party for 100 guests in the courtyard. 

“We have to accommodate because people come from everywhere. They want that Jett’s Grill experience, that pistachio fried steak that we’re used to, the margaritas that we’re known for, so you don’t want to shut them down. So yeah, you get stretched thin. But we make do, we make it work, and I am very thankful for everybody here,” said Wilson.

Abby Boyd, director of tourism for the City of Marfa, said the events and gatherings that were canceled due to the pandemic are starting to happen now. 

“I am aware of a lot of groups of visitors, especially weddings, making a return to Marfa. My understanding is that 2022 will be one of the busiest years in history for weddings, and I think Marfa is already starting to see that in 2021,” said Boyd. 

Tourism has remained at a steady pace, said Boyd, but many local entities are still experiencing impacts of the ongoing pandemic. 

“I also think people continue to see Marfa as a ‘safe’ destination, since we are remote and have such a small population. Marfa didn’t experience as big of an impact as larger Texas cities in terms of downturn in visitorship,” said Boyd. “With that said, I think some of our larger institutions are still proceeding with caution and moving a bit slower due to lack of staffing. Those places are not yet where they were pre-pandemic.”