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Wolfgang Puck: 'Waiters make $120,000 a year but I can't find them'

Not even award-winning celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck is immune to the labor shortage plaguing the restaurant industry.

The two-Michelin starred chef told Yahoo Finance Live that he still hasn’t been able to re-open some of his more than 20 restaurants around the world, like Cartier in Beverly Hills, because he doesn’t have enough workers.

“People get paid really well,” Puck said. “Still, it's difficult to find people to work. At Chinois in Santa Monica it's the same thing. I cannot open for lunchtime. Or even at Spago in Beverly Hills, you know, where people, waiters, make $120,000 a year. But I cannot find them.”

Puck’s plight has become a familiar theme in recent months. The restaurant industry has 1.7 million fewer jobs filled than before the pandemic — that’s the highest on record — despite raising pay and posting almost a million job openings in March.

Millions of workers who left the industry during the pandemic haven’t come back for a myriad of reasons including concerns about safety. Republicans blame the labor crunch on the Biden administration’s move to boost supplemental federal unemployment benefits. Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say the extra unemployment insurance is discouraging some employees from returning to work.

Puck said it's “difficult to get back to normal business.”

“The demand is definitely there. We get enough customers, but we cannot serve them. In an upscale environment, you have to give people great food and great service. So it's difficult to find enough people.”

Puck, who's net worth is estimated at $90 million, points to issues around immigration as part of the reason why he can’t find skilled workers.

“I think the government really should loosen up and have cooks come, if it's from France or Italy or from South America or wherever, so we can get the workforce up to par. If they are professional, why not get jobs? And then they pay taxes, and everything will get better,” said Puck.

Wolfgang Puck's Spago restaurant at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.
Wolfgang Puck's Spago restaurant at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

Puck said varying COVID-19 restrictions and the pace of the virus in certain geographies has made for an uneven return to business.

His restaurant CUT in Bahrain, for example, has been unable to reopen because the small island nation has seen a recent surge in coronavirus cases to record levels.

But, his restaurants in Las Vegas just had a record month now that COVID-related restrictions in Nevada have been lifted.

Puck, who also has his eponymous line of cookware, wine, coffee and cookbooks, is considering opening “ghost kitchens” for some of his locations to handle takeout and delivery services, something he says his current fine dining restaurants are not equipped to handle.

“Takeout is not our main business,” he stressed. “Our main business is keeping the customer, making the customer happy in our restaurant, make them feel good, give them great food and great service.”

Through it all, Puck, who has a documentary debuting on Disney+ June 25 chronicling his rise to chef stardom, remains optimistic. “I really believe come September people will come back. People will have parties. People will go out like it used to be."

Alexis Christoforous is an anchor at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AlexisTVNews.