Vacationing in paradise is one thing; cooking meals, washing dishes and scrubbing toilets there is another matter. The official population of McCall is a little over 3,000. That number nearly doubles in the summer months and during a holiday, such as the just-wrapped Fourth of July, thousands more flock to the resort town. It should be a boom time for area hotels, restaurants and taverns, but business owners say they are facing the nearly impossible task of hiring people.
For proof, look no further than the help wanted section in the June 22 McCall Star-News, plastered with ads seeking housekeepers, receptionists, cooks, servers, sales representatives, landscapers, maintenance workers and even a water skiing spotter for Payette Lake. Even the Valley County Sheriff's Office is suffering a severe staff shortage and is requiring deputies to take guard-duty shifts at the county jail.
"Let me pull out my recent list of openings," said Manager at IDL, McCall Office Jim Thackeray, "Wow, you name it, there's an opening. An assistant store manager, a bakery clerk, a bus driver, bartenders, caregivers and a lot of cooks."
An obvious question might be: How much does a cook in McCall make?
"These most recent help wanted ads don't show me the rates they're offering, but I'm going to say $14 an hour," said Thackeray. "It's an applicant's market, for sure. Most employers aren't going to take a warm body but it depends on how critical things are."
"Critical" may be the operative word at Si Bueno/Southside Grill restaurant in McCall. A recent help-wanted ad warned customers of the real possibility that "no minors would be allowed" if the business couldn't find cooks.
"Food service would be limited to bar-only this summer, which means those under 21 will be missing out," the ad read. "Prevent this from happening."
The problem with attracting a seasonal workforce is compounded—or possibly caused—by the cost of living in McCall and the shortage of affordable housing.
"Most people would be able to find work here, but much of that depends on finding somewhere to live. McCall has made some positive movement on affordable housing," said Thackeray, explaining how the Springs Apartment development has 29 units it rents at lower rates than the area rent/income ceiling. "They even added a second and third building there. Plus, there's another development coming to the community of Donnelly."
Thackeray was referring to the recently-announced Northwest Passage Apartments, developed by the Boise-based Northwest Real Estate Capital Corp., which plans to offer 36 units with monthly rents ranging from $426 to $800 per month. The Idaho Housing and Finance Association helped facilitate federal tax credits for that development. 37 units at that development have been set aside for "lower" rates. Meanwhile, the Boise-based nonprofit The Housing Company built the The Springs another Valley County affordable housing development. 29 of those apartments are being set aside for lower rates.
"But here's the thing. If you filled all of those up with working people right now, we'd still have a big shortage," said Thackeray. "Right now, there are probably a lot of people from the Treasure Valley or other states who would love to come work in McCall. They love it here. It's beautiful, and it's a wonderful environment to be in, but they simply can't find a place to live. Goodness knows the jobs are here and the place is beautiful, but these folks have a dickens of a time finding a place to live."
Raising the Bar
The management team at Shore Lodge are well versed on the employment versus housing dilemma. Shore Lodge development manager John Wood and recruiting specialist Vonna Torrey have actually crunched the numbers with Thackeray at his labor department office.
"This might give you some perspective. What's the number of unemployed people in Valley County right now?" asked Torrey. A quick check of the recent labor department report indicates approximately 244 people in the Valley County labor force were unemployed. "We figure that about 40 people are truly available in the job market. Are you kidding me? Forty people for every business in this town that currently needs employees?"
Shore Lodge needs a lot more 40 people.
"This summer, [we need] to hire about 350," said Wood. That would make the Shore Lodge a major employer in the Treasure Valley, let alone Valley County. "Nobody hires that many people, let alone hiring them seasonally. That gives you an idea of the breadth of our challenge."
Part of meeting that challenge was hiring Torrey, who moved to McCall earlier this year after working for a pair of Treasure Valley staffing agencies for 25 years.
"My official title at the Shore Lodge is Talent Acquisition Manager," said Torrey. "You see titles like that perhaps in California, not so much here, but what I do has everything about acquiring talent. Are we able to find 350 people? Yes, but with all the skill sets we need? That's the more important question. We're raising the bar at the Shore Lodge this year, so now, more than ever our hiring process is more about quality than quantity."
A big part of "raising the bar" includes some of the biggest changes to Shore Lodge in its history. Built along the sandy shores of Payette Lake, the lodge opened in 1948, with many of its guests coming from then-blossoming timber and mining industries in McCall. The lodge has hosted an untold number of weddings, graduations, proms, anniversaries and reunions. In 1990, Shore Lodge was purchased by California-based Torrey Enterprises Inc., which turned it into a private, members-only facility. Then, in 2008, a new ownership group, which included the grandson of Idaho grocery legend Joe Albertson, reopened the lodge and its Whitetail Club golf course to the public.
"Today, we have 77 rooms within the Shore Lodge," said Wood. "That's significantly fewer than our remodel about 15 years ago. The rooms are bigger. We have just upgraded our lakeside restaurant, which we have renamed The Cutwater. Still to come this year is the transformation of our tavern, The Bar, and the debut of the Narrows Steakhouse."
With those changes and additions, Wood says they will now focus on "Forbes standards," a metric of service levels coined by Forbes Inc., including its five-star travel guide.
"So, for instance, The Cove, here at Shore Lodge, has earned Idaho's only four-star rating from Forbes," said Torrey. "We want that four-star service to become a part of everything we do, but finding housekeepers and anything in food and beverage service to meet the Forbes standard? That has to be our biggest challenge right now."
An Employee Housing Upgrade
At press time, Shore Lodge still has more than 20 different job openings listed on its website. Torrey said she has had some success in attracting applicants, but the biggest hurdle has been housing for new employees.
"I think the biggest impression we've heard up until now was, 'You know, McCall is great, but you've got no place to stay,'" said Torrey. "We're changing that."
Shore Lodge has had employee housing over the years but it was more like a bunkhouse offering little more than a place to sleep. The newest development is a game changer.
"Two years ago, we purchased some old offices from the U.S. Forest Service, behind the McCall power station," said Wood, referring to a large building on Lakeside Avenue, just off Idaho Highway 55 near the popular Lardo's Grill and Saloon.
Visitors to Shore Lodge may be familiar with the upgraded suites, tavern and lakeside dining, but few will ever set foot inside the newly remodeled dormitory on Lakeside Avenue, where rooms have been fashioned to accommodate employees and their families.
"Between that dormitory, some of our other employee housing and even some properties in McCall that we have secured through property managers, we now have set aside about 108 beds," said Wood.
The real deal to a prospective employee is the cost. Monthly rents are a fraction of what the current market in McCall demands.
"We subsidize that for the first six months of employment," said Wood. "The cost for an employee starts at about $175 a month. We have a new employee who had just moved to Idaho from California. We met him at a job fair, and he's currently in employee housing with his family, something we never used to have."
Additionally, the new employee housing facility on Lakeside Avenue has a fully-staffed cafeteria and laundry facilities.
"And if you're currently on your shift, those meals are free," said Wood. "This is all something new, and it's a story that we want to tell. Yes, you can come to McCall. Yes, you can get a good-paying job here, and from our perspective, we have found a way to raise the bar in attracting high caliber employees."
In Search of the Four-Star Worker
Job fairs, websites and employee perks aside, management at The Shore Lodge still understand that attracting the type of worker who will help them achieve Forbes standard is more an art than a science.
"I can usually tell within a few minutes whether somebody's going to be really successful in hospitality,' said Wood. "I can sense people's level of empathy or level of awareness. They may be shy or even clumsy, but I still know they could be a star with the right development. I've been in the business for a long time and I've been burned by people who were really good when they got their foot in the door but stopped taking care of customers."
As for the path to four-star success, Wood was quick to add it all depends on the employees.
"You can't buy those stars. It's a constant evaluation process from Forbes ,and you'll never know when you're being evaluated," he said.
Julian Greaves is one of those people Wood singled out as a four-star hire. After serving as an executive chef at some the finest restaurants in of South Florida, Greaves spotted a help wanted ad for Shore Lodge.
"Chef Julian was super successful in Florida but he told me, quite frankly, he and his wife were scared to let their little boys go out and play in their neighborhood," said Wood. "When he came to McCall for a visit and interview, he fell in love with the place. And guess what? He and his family [were] in employee housing. He has since risen through the ranks."
Editor's note: Chef Julian rose to the rank of Executive Chef at the Whitetail Club. He has most recently the Executive Chef of Whitetail Club. Chef Julian has since left the organization.
Shore Lodge still needs plenty of help in its kitchens. The job listings this week included openings for chefs, servers, banquet captains and restaurant and bar managers. Ever thought about spending the summer in McCall?