At Open for Business, we talk to restaurateurs all the time about what keeps them up at night. Their most common response? Staffing.
Finding great candidates for front of house and back of house positions is more difficult than ever before — but maybe not for the reasons you think. We asked Alice Cheng, Founder and CEO of the hospitality networking and job matching site Culinary Agents, to share some of the biggest misconceptions about finding talent in the business today. Here, she shares five myths that affect how you hire and retain staff, and what you can do to set yourself apart as an employer.
1. The service industry is just a side job, not a career.
Over the past 10-15 years, the media and social media have driven transparency and excitement in the restaurant industry and produced a culture of people interested in learning more about food and what goes on in a restaurant. That feeds into a heightened respect of the people who dedicate their lives to serving others.
You’re seeing more and more people coming into this industry looking at the next step, whether that’s owning their own restaurant or learning more about wine. They want to surround themselves with passionate, educated people who will share knowledge and inspire them.
You also see career changers: people who may have started in service when they were younger, left to go on to a different type of profession, and come back.
Of course there are still many service positions filled by students, but we are seeing more people thinking about the restaurant industry from a career standpoint. Bold movements and organizations such as the Welcome Conference highlight the importance of bringing this community together and fostering and nurturing relationships and development.
One of the hardest things to look for on a resume are the soft skills, that passion and genuine desire to learn that both front of house and back of house are really trying to hone in on. That’s something that’s really difficult to fake.
STAFFING TIP: Give people with more diverse backgrounds a chance. Sometimes restaurants need somebody who already possesses the skills required, so that they can hit the ground running, but we’re also hearing success stories about people with just a little bit of fast casual experience or customer service experience in a different industry. They want to get their foot in the door in the restaurant business and learn, and they’ve been able to thrive here.
2. There is a line cook shortage.
There’s not a shortage of line cooks — there is a much broader definition of line cook now.
Now line cooks have many more options than they had in the past. You’re not just competing with the restaurant down the street, you’re competing with the food tech delivery startup or the specialty grocer that decides they want to introduce more prepared food options.
Line cooks exist; there are a lot of them. Culinary school enrollment has grown over the years. But there are many more options for line cooks at all levels in their career path, and there are also lifestyle challenges in certain cities, such as access to affordable living and convenient public transportation.
Ten or 15 years ago, if you were a popular restaurant that received a lot of awards, cooks were knocking down your doors for an opportunity. Now the power has shifted to the line cook. If you are a passionate and hard-working cook with great skills and potential, you can take your pick of the best restaurants.
STAFFING TIP: Brand your business. Sell your restaurant as a great place to work. Be thoughtful about how you present yourself to potential applicants and what you can offer them. What’s different about your establishment? Do you offer training courses once a week on fishmongering, coffee service or wine? How will you help cooks develop their skills further, and how do you communicate that? Hold classes, take pictures, and share them on social media. Invest in cooks’ continuing education — no one can compete with that.
3. Everyone wants to work in a major city.
Now more than ever, we see pockets of highly applauded establishments and people in “non-traditional” cities. Restaurateurs may decide to relocate for personal reasons or return to their roots, such as Gavin Kaysen with Spoon & Stable in Minneapolis. Restaurant industry professionals are moving to cities outside of Manhattan, San Francisco or Chicago. They are building and cultivating the dining community around them, and that collectively raises the bar.
Ultimately, that creates so many more options for everyone — options for the diner, and options for the worker to learn from different environments and work with different local ingredients. Aspiring professionals see successful restaurateurs who have paved a path in smaller cities and look to them for inspiration.
Culinary Agents supports talent and businesses in 30 cities. In the past six to eight months, we’ve seen a lot of people move from San Francisco to Denver or Boulder. Quality of life is similar; cost of living is significantly less; and quality of restaurateurs and restaurants has increased.
Don’t get me wrong: I always say that for every one person trying to leave Manhattan, there are three trying to come here. Candidates will relocate to New York to work for certain chefs or restaurants, grow their network, and learn specific techniques. But what we are seeing is more deliberate movement coinciding with their career goals.
STAFFING TIP: Candidates may be willing to relocate for the right position. If you can showcase why your restaurant is unique, you may reach someone who’s ready for a change of scene. On Culinary Agents, talent can search for opportunities across cities and employers can post jobs in multiple cities, so the pool is wider on both sides of the equation.
4. Great talent only comes from certain schools.
New culinary arts, pastry arts and hospitality programs have emerged in community colleges, vocational schools and high schools that produce outstanding talent.
The top schools are still great schools, and they have a proven history of successful people coming out year after year. They will continue to be a great resource for restaurants. But just as there is more variety in options where people can work, there is also more variety in the places they come from.
On our site, we can see where people are going to school and graduating from. When we see a new school, we take note. A while back we started getting job posts for culinary instructors from Homer, Alaska and learned about a school creating a new culinary program! In the New York area, Star Academy and City Tech have produced great talent over time.
We talk about “pipeline building” of talent. You may need 10 line cooks today and get them and be happy, but what about when you need more? Wouldn’t it be great to have a constant flow of qualified people you’re connected with?
Restaurants large and small are thinking about how to find talent, nurture them, invest in them, retain them, and then help them along to the next step. With social media and the increased transparency, people are more vocal about it — and that ends up being a powerful recruiting tool for restaurants.
STAFFING TIP: New, unfamiliar programs can produce truly passionate people. Often employers will only target certain schools to recruit from, but be open-minded to smaller programs popping up within other schools. You may uncover a whole new culinary program that no one has discovered yet. Look at people who will be graduating in a few months and think of creative ways to engage them beforehand, by sharing interesting articles or nurturing their careers through Culinary Agents. Those little gestures can be powerful.
5. Employees leave jobs because of money.
Last year we surveyed candidates on our site to find out the most common reasons that they leave jobs (over half of the respondents were from the back of house).
Restaurants were asking us questions about the average salaries for line cooks in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities, trying to figure out if the reason they weren’t recruiting and retaining staff was due to not offering a competitive salary.
The result: 78% of respondents said that they would quit a job because they had “reached their learning potential.” Line cooks, especially in mid- to upper-tier restaurants, know what they’re going to make. The next question is, why should I stay here?
They ask, do I feel like I’m learning anything? It’s less about making another 50 cents per hour, and more about feeling fulfilled. This is a transient industry, and people are jumping from place to place to learn from different mentors.
STAFFING TIP: It isn’t just about money. Are you offering structured learning opportunities and showing staff that you care? Hone in on people who are passionate, nurture them and help them develop — it does right by the entire industry.
Learn more of Culinary Agents’ tips for finding great talent this weekend at the Golden Gate Restaurant Association’s Industry Conference, where Alice will speak on a panel about increasing nobility in hospitality work.
Photo Credit: Erin Kunkel