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‘He didn’t really answer the question:’ Cincinnati restaurateur who asked Biden about labor shortage not satisfied

John Lanni says he pays a living wage and he still can’t find enough workers.
Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 11:52 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI (Enquirer) - When John Lanni, the co-founder and owner of Cincinnati restaurant group Thunderdome, was asked by CNN to join the network’s Wednesday night town hall with President Joe Biden, Lanni immediately knew what he was going to ask.

And when he was called on, according to our media partners at the Enquirer, he used his turn in the national spotlight to ask about his issue: the labor shortage.

“We employ hundreds of hard-working team members throughout the state of Ohio and across the country,” he said. “And we’re looking to hire more every day as we try to restart our restaurant business. The entire industry, amongst other industries, continues to struggle to find employees. How do you and the Biden administration plan to incentivize those that haven’t returned to work yet? Hiring is our top priority right now.”

Biden, from the stage in the auditorium of Mount Saint Joseph University, responded at length. But Lanni, along with fellow attendee Taste of Belgium owner Jean-Francois Flechet, didn’t love his answer.

Biden said they aren’t paying workers enough, suggesting they need to pay $15 an hour or more, instead of $7 an hour or $8 an hour.

“I think it really is a matter of people deciding now that they have opportunities to do other things and there’s a shortage of employees,” Biden said. “People are looking to make more money and to bargain. And so I think your business and the tourist business is really going to be in a bind for a little while.”

But Lanni – whose restaurants include Bakersfield, Pepp and Dolores and The Eagle – and Flechet say they are paying, with tips, at least that in most cases.

“I was hoping he would recognize it is every industry’s dilemma,” Lanni told The Enquirer after the event. “We are in a labor crisis and we need to find a way to incentivize people to get back to work. I just heard restaurants are going to have a hard road going forward and that we need to pay our workers more,” Lanni said. “That’s happening and it’s still not enough.”

Lanni said 80-90 percent of his company’s workers make more than a livable wage, if it’s considered $15 an hour.

“I feel like he didn’t really answer the question,” Lanni said.

Flechet agreed with Lanni, with whom he attended the town hall, and had his own list of prepared questions, should he have been called on.

He planned to ask about replenishing the restaurant revitalization fund, which he says is critical for minority and women-owned restaurant owners.

“I understand where the president was going; everyone deserves a living wage;” Flechet said. “But he was mixing answers. This wasn’t about living wages. Anybody who works Thunderdome or Taste of Belgium make more than $15 an hour. I don’t know that he fully understands the challenges we are facing.”

And it’s critical, he said, that the government does understand the issues.

“If we cannot find workers, restaurants cannot survive,” Flechet said.

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