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Fargo lefse maker among many local businesses suffering from worker shortage

WEST FARGO--The regional workforce shortage has taken a bite out of a lefse maker's business plans. Freddy's Lefse, 176 Main Ave. E., announced this fall that an "extreme lack" of manpower forced the bakery, in business since 1946, to suspend its...

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WEST FARGO-The regional workforce shortage has taken a bite out of a lefse maker's business plans.

Freddy's Lefse, 176 Main Ave. E., announced this fall that an "extreme lack" of manpower forced the bakery, in business since 1946, to suspend its mail order service for the holiday season.

Manager Michele Cox, who runs the business with her husband, Terry Cox, daughter Amanda Lien and brother-in-law Barry Cox, said it was a "big deal" to temporarily halt this growing part of seasonal sales.

"We hate disappointing anybody, but we had to make that decision, and we're not the only ones affected by it," she said.

Local restaurateur Eric Watson, co-owner and chef of Mezzaluna and Rustica restaurants in Fargo-Moorhead, said he planned just a few years ago to open another eatery. Now he's not interested because it's too hard to hire workers.

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"Unless I want to work 80 hours a week, I would rather keep what I have or even potentially downscale," he said. "I don't want to grow anymore."

Carey Fry, manager of Job Service North Dakota's Fargo office, said finding workers has become more difficult in recent years. With Cass County's unemployment rate at a low 1.8 percent and a growing number of new businesses opening in the community, she said it's more important than ever for employers to rethink how they advertise openings.
"You can try all these different things and it's still not going to be an easy job," Fry said. "I do think that employers need to try several different avenues."

Competition

Freddy's Lefse would normally have 14 or 15 employees for the holiday rush. Right now, the business has a dozen.

"We're short at least two people, which doesn't sound like that much, but try and get people to apply," she said.

The business needs workers to do the assembly line-type process of rolling, frying and other steps to make the tortilla-shaped Scandinavian delicacy.

Cox said the business can make enough lefse to supply local grocery stores, and customers can still stop by the bakery on weekdays to stock up. But keeping up with mail orders is extra work, she said, and they've put that on hold until at least early next year.
"You can't even think of growing because you've got to have people to do it," she said.

Fry said while much of western North Dakota's workforce shortage has eased in recent years, it remains in full force in the Red River Valley. Food service and service industry jobs tend to be the hardest hit, she said.

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Job Service North Dakota's October figures include 103 food service openings in this area, a figure Fry said is just a fraction of the real number because many restaurants don't post openings.

Businesses do have options to reach more applicants, she said, including sponsoring a job fair at the Job Service office or posting ads on its website. With 100 to 300 people coming through the office daily, many employers have been able to hire more by doing this, she said.
But with the low unemployment rate, employers also have to be more flexible during the seasonal hiring push, Fry said. A full-time worker likely can't pick up a part-time seasonal job if it's only available weekdays while they're at their other gig, for example.

Fry said one local manufacturer was struggling to hire more workers, so he created a new weekend shift that offered a full-time position to employed people looking for a second job. By doing this, he was able to start another line of production, she said.

At Fargo's Carol Widman's Candy Co., 4325 13th Ave. S., Carol Widman Kennedy said she's learned it "takes time" to fully staff the 50 or so jobs her business needs for the holiday season. She starts ads early, both online and in print, to make it work.
She used to get calls about job openings weeks after the ad ran, but it doesn't work like that anymore.

"Times have changed in that way as there have become more businesses, more restaurants, more everything that one is competing with all of those for employees," she said.

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Packages of Freddy's Lefse, the West Fargo-made Scandinavian treat that is a fixture of holiday tables across the United States. Forum file photo

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