2021 July 22, Thursday
Brenda Gutschow, an owner of Dairy Queen and Fernando’s in Blair, spoke with us today. She was blunt about their offer of the $1000 “hiring bonus” at Dairy Queen, struggles faced since 2020, the state of business, and future plans.
(1) BLAIR TODAY: There is an “arms race” in Blair to see who will pay most for restaurant workers. Dairy Queen raised the stakes with a $1000 “hiring bonus”, and pay “up to $18 an hour.” Why did you offer these?
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: We are struggling with getting anyone to even just apply. And, it’s not just Dairy Queen – it’s Fernando’s, too. In the last, I’d say, sixty-days, folks don’t show up for interviews – if they even respond. In the last couple weeks we don’t even get responses at all.
(2) BLAIR TODAY: Friends in the restaurant industry report similar problems in other states. Why do you think there is lack of interest in work, and at pay scales which were unheard-of just a year ago?
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: I don’t really have the answer. I’ve got ideas, but don’t know for sure. I think right now – this time of year – and the pandemic, and new co-vid variant, is giving people pause. A lot of people are still working from home and doing other things. I think the industry we are in is hurting more than others. For some reason, it’s just really hard to find people who want to work in a restaurant.
(3) BLAIR TODAY: The sign in front of Dairy Queen sparked conversation with talk of “up to $18 an hour”. Then, your Facebook posts about a $1000 “hiring bonus” sparked more. Can you be specific about what the Dairy Queen offers are?
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: We give the “hiring bonus” after 90 days. They don’t get it when they walk in the door. But, if they stay for 90 days, that’s amazing… I’ve never done $1000 until now – we’ve always offered something from time-to-time when we needed to “up our game.” As far as the $18 an hour, I am willing to pay that – for managers only. And, depending on their experience, if they’re good, I need them. I agree, it’s off the charts for Blair, I think…
(4) BLAIR TODAY: I think it’s unprecedented…
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: Well, it hasn’t done anything yet. I mean, we haven’t gotten anything off of it.
(5) BLAIR TODAY: I hestitate to ask, but is there a point at which you can’t go higher?
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: It just depends on where our sales are at. If sales are down, that will make it pretty hard. But, this is our busy time of year… We’re doing everything we can to stay in the game, and keep good help. That’s what I look for, and I hoped that pay would bring in decent help that has some experience, is what I guess I’m trying to say… Versus $9 an hour… And, honestly, I have to compete. I’m not the only one paying higher wages. What’s Taco Bell starting at now? $13 or $14 an hour?
(6) BLAIR TODAY: And, I know others in town making over $17 an hour…
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: Yeah… So, that’s where I’m at. And, that’s the conversation we’ve had – my husband and I. We’re like, “I guess, we can try this.” I’m not going to just hire anyone at $18 an hour, though. It would have to be someone who’s a really good fit for us, and I know they are “long term.” I would absolutely be willing to pay it.
(7) BLAIR TODAY: I have a concern about these wage increases over such a short time. This environment will be hard to step back from – even if the Blair economy demands it. People may expect it to continue forever. I can’t think of a time when wages ever came down – other than the Great Depression. Might these pay hikes and chasing people to find quality workers have a negative long-term effect?
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: Yes, you’re absolutely right. That’s a very good possibility. But, I don’t know what the answer is – that’s my problem. I just know we are really struggling as far as getting help. For example, right now I don’t have a “Cake Decorator.” That’s one example. Not for $18 an hour, but we pay a decent wage for that. And, I’ve always had many, many applicants – so many it drives you crazy. But, this is the first time ever I don’t even have just one. The “Cake Decorator” positions pay anywhere from $12 to $13 an hour, and it’s part-time. I usually have mothers, or others who like to create, and come in a couple days a week and do cakes. And, I have nothing at the moment. Zero.
(8) BLAIR TODAY: As unfortunate as your hiring issues are, from the outside things look like business is good. I’ve never seen more cars lined up than now. Is business good at Dairy Queen?
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: Yes, and, this is our busy time. So, yes, business is good. I don’t know if you notice the dining room is closed, though? The reason for that is… Not enough staff… I don’t have the staff to open it up when you’re only running on two to three people. I want to be able to serve people, I want them to come in and be happy, and I want them to be waited on in a decent amount of time, and I want drive-thru to get waited on in a decent amount of time… So, I had to make a choice – until I can get some good help.
(9) BLAIR TODAY: Well, you can only do what you can do…
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: Yeah, you know, Dairy Queen gets “beat up on” pretty bad – and, I understand it. We’ve had our highs and lows. You’re only as good as the people who work for you. And, I have great staff – the kids that work there are amazing. But, I’ve had some management issues. I think everyone goes through that from time-to-time. This time, right now, is different than anything I’ve ever seen in, let’s see, I think it’s been 14 years we’ve had Dairy Queen, and never been through this before. I don’t know what the answer is, I just am trying to do what I can do.
(10) BLAIR TODAY: With respect to “management issues,” your management team at Fernando’s is fantastic. And, It was not always this good. Sheena Grogan is spectacular – she’s professional, personable, polite, and friendly. You feel like she cares about Fernando’s and her customers. Also, when Hailey answers the phone you hear her smile as she takes your order. Look, the environment is hard, but it’s people like Sheena, and Hailey that keep my family coming back time and time again.
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: Well, at Fernando’s, I have top-notch staff. And, that’s what I’d like for Dairy Queen. Obviously, you can’t compare the two – they are two different types of restaurants. But, I am very proud of what we’re doing here at Fernando’s. We’ve been on a really good run for quite a while – ever since we opened back up, actually. Our manager, Sheena Grogan, started out as a server probably 12 or 13 years ago. So, she knows Fernando’s inside and out. She does a great job of managing it. I have a new assistant manager I think is amazing. I’m very, very happy with our staff here…
(11) BLAIR TODAY: Who is your newest assistant manager?
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: Rosemary Jensen…
(12) BLAIR TODAY: It’s clear there is a shift at Fernando’s to quality customer service. That’s good for Fernando’s, and for Blair. Do you hear other people say the same?
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: I absolutely do. Everybody, and I, have noticed business is picking up in here. And, I’m very happy about that. Again, it’s because I have a great staff. That’s basically what it comes down to. They know what they’re doing, and they do it well.
(13) BLAIR TODAY: When the Taphouse closed, you took over weekly trivia in Blair. Is it a net-positive for Fernando’s, and do you plan to continue?
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: We’re going to continue, and it is net-positive. Going into fall you kinda have to be creative. You know, right before the pandemic we had karaoke on Friday nights – we’d like to go back to that, probably start slow, maybe just do it twice a month. We had painting in the “Blair Room,” our catering room. We’ll come up with some different ideas, because it’s kind of nice to have somewhere in Blair to go do these things other than a bar. And, our staff enjoys it.
(14) BLAIR TODAY: How hard was the last year?
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: It was very, very stressful. Very scary. You have to stay positive through it. We didn’t know what was going to happen. And, we couldn’t be open. But, we still had to pay bills – luckily, we had a good business and were able to get through it. But, I know a lot of places couldn’t.
(15) BLAIR TODAY: What will help Fernando’s and Dairy Queen the most?
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: The same faces, all the time, coming back in to support us. I can’t say enough for those people. I think a lot of times there’s more to offer in Omaha, and that’s where people take their business. Being a “bedroom community,” a lot of people work in Omaha, and I think they stay there, and eat their dinner, and do their shopping, and that sort of thing. Also, as far as downtown Blair with the trucks, the semis, I think if that would change it would make a huge difference. I think the downtown area needs more business… I know there is talk of solution to that, and I think it would change things immensely. I think many people stay away from the area because of the trucks…
(16) BLAIR TODAY: Well, gosh, who doesn’t want to walk out a restaurant, and as they breathe, get a mouthful of dust that tastes like the end of a pig?
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: Ha… And, another example from the other day is my daughter and I parked downtown, then when we got back in the car… Man, you gotta be careful! I mean, the driver saw me, but, it’s not easy. And, I think about the elderly… That’s one of the things we really struggle with in the winter. We really, struggle in the winter because of the parking.
(17) BLAIR TODAY: You know, to go back to something you mentioned about Omaha: Omaha may have some things, but they don’t have Sheena, Hailey, Rosemary, and the rest of your staff at Fernando’s. The food is good, and the people are even better…
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: Absolutely… And, I appreciate hearing it. Just hearing those positive comments lifts me up – which lifts them up. It’s nice to hear more positive. It’s real easy to bash, but it’s nice to hear people are having good experiences, too. I’m proud of our staff, and I know they are what brings the business in here. I’m fully-aware and proud of them. So, you’re right…
(18) BLAIR TODAY: You say it’s easy to “bash.” It’s also easy to compare. With Fernando’s and El Vallarta, and then Dairy Queen, Burger King, and McDonald’s all right next to each other, people do tend to pick favorites. But, there’s room for many restaurants in Blair – no one has to lose… My family supports Blair business – all Blair business… And, as we watched things unfold over the last year, we were thankful-for and thought often about, Fernando’s, Dairy Queen, and all the stores in town.
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: I feel blessed. I do feel like Blair supports us. And, I know it’s because of my staff. And, again, I can’t say enough about them. Blair has a lot to offer. There’s room for so many restaurants. There should be more going on downtown.
(19) BLAIR TODAY: Well, that leads me to a question on how to overcome struggles: Do you have plans for Dairy Queen and Fernando’s to build out a more robust delivery business?
BRENDA GUTSCHOW of DAIRY QUEEN AND FERNANDO’S: We talk about it all the time. Once again, I need to find delivery people. When we were shut down for a month last year, we did have delivery during that time. We’ve done a lot of business with Blair Blue Cab. So, yeah, absolutely. We’re open to all that. I’m always open to any ideas for improvement. I want everyone to be happy, and we all want to be successful.
EDITORS NOTE: I asked about the RV. You know the one in the driveway at Dairy Queen? The one you think, “I wonder who owns that? Does someone live in it?” The answers are: Family, and “no.”