EagleHerald Staff Writer

MENOMINEE—Laurie’s Wildflower Café & Bagel Shoppe is looking for a few good people to keep it open and fully staffed.

It’s also up for sale.

If owner Laurie Beattie receives a decent offer for the café at 2210 10th St., she plans to join her husband Kevin in retirement, she said.

Kevin just retired from the hospital, where he was head of maintenance, Laurie said, “so as of right now he’s just starting to enjoy his retirement.” But because of the labor shortage, he may be working at Wildflower, she said.

Across the street at Nerat’s Plumbing and Heating, and at many other Menominee businesses, COVID-19 and a tight labor market also have curtailed companies’ efforts to return to pre-pandemic staffing levels.

A “for sale” sign hangs in Nerat’s window, and the business’s voicemail message announced, “Forced to close indefinitely due to unforeseen circumstances.”

Unlike some businesses that shutter their doors when business dries up, owner Don Nerat said his plumbing and heating company had the opposite problem—not enough workers to keep up with demand.

“It was too big for my sons to manage by themselves,” he said. “It’s been hard to find anybody in the plumbing and heating area. People don’t want to be in it late at night and working in ditches.”

“The stress level on the ones who were here was just too great,” he said.

A labor shortage in Menominee and Marinette is affecting businesses in many different industries.

“All around town, it’s been a problem,” said Francine Kitkowski, owner of Assist 2 Sell Buyers & Sellers Realty of Marinette and Menominee, the company that has Beattie’s shop listed. The workforce is “over demanded and under supplied,” Kitkowski said, especially in the skilled trades like plumbing, heating and electricity. Restaurant cooks also are commanding higher wages because they are in such demand, she said.

At Wildflower, Beattie might not have faced the crossroads of whether to sell the business or keep trying to staff up if COVID-19 hadn’t come along.

“We would have worked through it if we could have,” Beattie said. “Last year I did lose $100,000 dollars,” or about a third or more of her annual revenue. The cafe was closed for two months, she said. She also laid off several workers, and most stayed on unemployment because of the federal dollars that boosted the weekly stipend.

Prominent “help wanted” signs at Wildflower’s location on 10th Street have attracted job applicants in the past, along with placing ads in the newspaper and on radio. But they aren’t pulling in applicants this year. “The work force is just not good. There are signs everywhere in the twin cities. Everyone is looking for help. There’s just not that many people looking” for jobs, she said.

Nerat’s Plumbing and Heating is facing the same issue. “The phone’s ringing off the hook looking for stuff to get done,” said Don’s brother, Steve Nerat, who said he is retired from the company. But the company doesn’t have the workers it needs to take care of customers.

The company hired one worker who decided to start his own plumbing and HVAC business in another area, Steve said. Another new hire didn’t work out. “We train people, and then they leave to go to Green Bay” or elsewhere, he said. “People don’t like this work. They don’t want to learn or get involved.”

Running a bagel shop also requires its own set of skills—and workers who don’t mind starting early.

The shop is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, but the baker starts at 5:30 a.m. to make the popular French toast bagels and cheddar bagels people stop in for, Beattie said. The bagels are baked daily on premises.

“I love this business,” said Beattie, who purchased it in 2006 after working there under three different owners. “When I started here as a baker, I wanted to have a business like this. I ate, dreamt and slept bagels.” The shop offers a variety of flavors, such as very berry, cinnamon raisin, pizza and Jalapeno cheddar.

But with five grandsons and a sixth grandchild on the way, Beattie said she wants to spend more time with her grandchildren and her husband, who retired six weeks ago. “I’d like to retire also so we can do things together,” she said. “I’m ready.” Beattie started working at Wildflower in 1999 as a baker and then as a manager before purchasing the store.

With seasonal workers leaving this week to return to school, Beattie said she and a manager are the only two workers left. “We’ll have to put up a sign: ‘Please be patient,’” she said. “We’ve had to do it in the past, and we’ll have to do it again if I don’t find help,” she said.

A “For Sale” sign stands in front of the shop, along with a “Help Wanted” sign. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to keep the doors open,” Kitkowski said.

Beattie said she wants to the business with the real estate. “I’m hoping it will be a turnkey for someone,” she said. “I’ll stay until they can figure the business out.”

Kitkowski attributed the labor shortage to COVID and the extra funds the government has provided, including a federal stipend for unemployed workers and a child tax credit.

At Nerat’s, Don Nerat plans to sell the real estate and the business. He said he is in the process of obtaining an appraisal. The store’s remaining plumbing merchandise will be offered in a closeout sale, Steve Nerat said.

“It got to be too big of a hassle to keep the business going,” he said. In October, Nerat’s posted a job listing on LinkedIn for a detail-oriented HVAC technician. The responsibilities listed included skills in installing, maintaining and repairing ventilation and air conditioning systems and “a willingness to continue education in the HVAC field.”

Don Nerat’s two sons were in line to take over the business and keep it going, but they declined, Steve said. One went to work for PHC (Plumbing, Heating and Cooling) and the other moved to Tennessee. “It’s not easy—especially now. Running a business is time-consuming. It’s a lot of effort and there’s a lot of responsibility.”