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Cheesy Westerns, bongs and labor shortages: understanding Va.’s hectic pandemic job market

Rhonda Rankin, the longtime manager of the Texas Inn in Lynchburg, passes a customer a carry...
Rhonda Rankin, the longtime manager of the Texas Inn in Lynchburg, passes a customer a carry out order during a busy lunch shift. She says she’s been unable to hire enough employees to fully staff the restaurant since shutdowns last year.(Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Published: Aug. 24, 2021 at 11:39 AM EDT
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LYNCHBURG — The Texas Inn sits at the end of Main Street in Lynchburg, an 86-year-old beacon for late-night drunk food with a menu centered around a Depression-era chili recipe and a grease-laden sandwich known as the Cheesy Western.

And for more than a decade, you could find Jacob Johns happily working the flat-top grill behind the 15-seat counter — a job he loved, until, amid a historic pandemic, he realized he didn’t.

“Nighttime would be fun as hell,” said the 27-year-old, who started working at the restaurant alongside his mom as a teenager. “I remember singing Queen songs on the damn bar with drunk people. And I love stuff like that. There’s no other natural endorphins than being able to make somebody smile.”

Like hundreds of other restaurants around the state, the Texas Inn closed when the pandemic hit. And like hundreds of other restaurants around the state, when it finally set about reopening, it found many of its former employees weren’t exactly keen on returning.

The impasse has led to headlines about worker shortages, promises of big bonuses for new hires and bitter, partisan debates over enhanced unemployment benefits, which many low-wage employers blame for their ongoing staffing problems.

Among those reluctant former employees is Johns, who has refused repeated job offers from the Texas Inn. At first, he wasn’t sure it was safe and worried working over a hot grill in a mask would lead to unsanitary levels of sweat. And in either case, they were only offering him part-time work, which he says would have cut his income by more than half.

Now he says he realized the job just wasn’t for him. He’s found a new counter to work behind at a busy vape and pipe shop where he had long been a customer as an unabashed marijuana enthusiast.

For a man whose only serious friction at the Texas Inn came from his penchant for smoking pot in the parking lot, it is a dream job and, he hopes, a springboard into the burgeoning legal marijuana industry.

“They asked me, ‘Do you want to sell bowls and bongs?’ I said, ‘Hell yeah!’,” Johns said.

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