You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit

'We don't have a shortage of customers, we have a shortage of workers': International Cafe persists despite challenges

  • 2 min to read
'We don't have a shortage of customers, we have a shortage of workers': International Cafe persists despite challenges

International Cafe on Ninth Street has long been a go-to place for Mediterranean food in town. Run by the Venezuelan-Libyan couple Elizabeth Hernandez-Gumati and Mohamed Gumati, the cafe serves a variety of gyros, falafel and hummus with a strong feeling of welcome.

Fresh falafel is produced every alternate day in the International Café.

Yumivia Rojas shapes falafel Sept. 23. The falafel is produced fresh every other day.

Mohamed serves food to the International Café client.

Mohamed serves food to an International Cafe client.

After 10 years of service, COVID-19 caused an explosion of delivery services and a resulting workforce shortage that threaten the well-being of the restaurant’s business.

The place is lively and visibly busy during lunch hours. Apart from Mohamed and Elizabeth, there are only two more people on staff — Yumivia Rojas, who recently immigrated from Venezuela, and Mike, a family friend.

“We don’t have a shortage of customers, we have a shortage of workers,” said Mohamed. “To find the right people now is kind of hard.”

The International Café has a loyal and diverse customer base which comes from all over the city.

A child looks into the display case at the International Cafe in late September. The cafe has a loyal and diverse customer base from all over the city. College student regulars mix easily with professionals from downtown, local families and immigrants from many different countries and cultures.

Like many other family-run restaurants, International Cafe has been financially impacted by the introduction and expansion of food delivery services in town.

“It all started a year or two before COVID,” said Mohamed. The cafe would hire and lose employees within a couple months. The majority of them would shift toward delivery work, which promised flexible hours and payment. Because of that, Mohamed and Elizabeth reduced the working hours of the place, from 11 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m., to 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Changes like this can be seen in places all over the city.

The stack of orders in the International Café.

A stack of orders sits in the International Cafe. Many of the guests in the cafe have been going to the place for years. "Columbia is small, it reminds me of cities in my country. Our customers are our friends," says Mohamed Gumati.

Due to the shortage in the workforce, Elizabeth and Mohamed do a huge part of the work in a café.

Due to the shortage in the workforce, the Gumatis do a huge part of the work in a cafe. Now they employ only one staff member - Yumivia Rojas, who recently immigrated to Columbia from Venezuela. They also get support from family friend Mike, who regularly comes to help in the kitchen.

“When you have a restaurant change their hours, that’s probably because they have a shortage of employees,” said Mohamed Gumati.

Despite the reduced work hours and shortage of employees, the International Cafe is still profitable. The majority of people have been coming there for years and spread a good word about the place around town.

Mohamed resumes his prayer while Elizabeth cleans the kitchen

Gumati kneels on his prayer rug on Sept. 22, 2021. At the end of the day, when International Cafe’s customer service ceases, Gumati is able to resume his prayer.

Elizabeth laughs while having coffee during the break with Yumivia.

Elizabeth Hernandez-Gumati laughs with her employee, Yumivia Rojas, during their coffee break Sept. 23 at the International Cafe in Columbia.

“Usually, we have a very strong lunch, and that’s why we can afford to close earlier,” Mohamed Gumati said.

Regardless of the daily challenges, Elizabeth and Mohamed continue to run the café and serve their food to regular customers.

Mohamed came to the United States from Libya in the 1970s.

Mohamed Gumati holds a photo of himself from the 1970s on Sept. 23. Gumati came to the United States from Libya in the ‘70s with the initial plan to study English and eventually return to help his father with their agrarian business. However, after Muammar Qaddafi rose to power, the possibilities for private business were almost non-existent, and Gumati decided to stay in the U.S. and pursue another career path.

Mohamed takes a break from working.

Mohamed Gumati rests Sept. 22. While taking a break from work, he enjoys watching American movies from the 1960s and browsing Facebook.

This story was created during the 73rd Missouri Photo Workshop Hometown Edition — an annual photo workshop concentrated on discovery of human stories in small towns around the globe. The mentors of this photo story were MU alumni Lois Raimondo and Torsten Kjellstrand.

Recommended for you