Staff photo by Mike Pare / Panera recently temporarily closed the dining room to customers at its Market Street restaurant in downtown Chattanooga. The location still offers catering, pickup and delivery.

Chattanooga area Panera eateries are offering $1,000 to managers and to employees hired before next June 14 as the company tries to retain and find staff amid a scarcity of workers besetting businesses.

"I've been in restaurants for 40 years and I've never seen anything like we're going through," said Mike Lucas, director of operations for area Panera franchisee CSC Investments. "It's not just the restaurant industry, it's retail, it's everybody else."

Lucas said the downtown Chattanooga Panera restaurant has temporarily closed its dining room during the staffing shortage, though the Market Street location is continuing with catering, pickup and delivery.

Even the restaurant company's new Hixson location near Northgate Mall has felt the hiring crunch, he said.

"Business is good when we're able to keep it open," Lucas said. "Sometimes it's drive-thru only at night depending on staff."

A survey this month of Tennessee small business owners showed that 85% of the businesses responding have job openings and 94% of those employers say they're having problems getting people to apply.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses survey found that 63% of owners having trouble finding applicants cite the current $300 weekly federal unemployment benefit passed earlier to provide coronavirus relief as a primary reason.

Tondja Stewart, manager of the Subway restaurant on Dayton Pike in Soddy-Daisy, said she has had to limit store hours as well as it works to find and keep employees.

"It's definitely because of staffing," she said. "Every time I get one, they'll quit."

Stewart said the eatery is close to having a full staff now, if she can keep everyone. But, she added, they're not all trained up.

Lucas said the Cleveland, Tennessee-based Panera franchisee, which has 25 locations in East Tennessee, North Georgia and along the Gulf Coast, is investing about $400,000 in the company with its employee appreciation spending.

"Our managers are busting their tails and employees who are working with us are putting in a lot of hours," he said.

In the first company paycheck in July, managers and bakery supervisors are to receive $1,000, Lucas said. Then, all full-time employees hired before June 14, if they work through the summer and into September, will receive $500, the company official said. If they work past Christmas, they'll see another $500, he said. Part-timers also will receive extra in different increments, Lucas said.

"Our owner said that this is truly an appreciation for people who have stuck with us and are working everyday in the trenches," he said.

While the benefit was just rolled out about a week ago, employees seem excited about it, the operations director said.

Lucas blamed the labor shortage on the government, though he's not taking political sides. Some people dropping off of unemployment benefits will help, he said.

An extra federal supplement is set to expire July 3 in Tennessee following Gov. Bill Lee's recent executive action. Tennessee is adding $50 to its maximum weekly benefit of $275.

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp is ending the federal supplement on June 26.

Lucas said that while a number of people may apply for a job in order to keep their unemployment benefits, few actually are interviewed.

"In one of our Knoxville stores, of 26 applicants one answered the phone to be interviewed," he said. "If we set up 10 interviews and get one or two to show up, that's a lot."

Lucas said he hopes the Panera benefit and the expiration of the federal supplement will entice people to come back to work and companies will have the opportunity to get back the pre-coronavirus staffing levels.

"We've just got to battle our way through it," he said.

Contact Mike Pare at Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.