The Kitchen Staff Crisis: What Can Be Done About It?

10/12/16 6:00 AM Natalie Appleton

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When it comes to finding and keeping great kitchen staff—a challenge that’s reached near crisis levels in some areas in recent years—the restaurant industry faces a hard and simple truth: Wages are too low and the hours are too long.

Or is that the reason kitchens can’t keep staff? 

To get more insight into what restaurants are doing to combat this issue and what’s ahead for an industry driven by so much competition and a chain versus indie culture, we spoke to Michael Cipollo, chef and founder at Local Restaurants Inc., and Scott Sinclair, a seasoned restaurant consultant and recruiter with Gecko Hospitality.

Good staff are hard to find

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When the time came to hire a few more guys (or girls) for the back, and that time always came sooner than later, Cipollo and his partners would get out the ad from last time. And this is what would happen:  

“We’d get a lot of applicants, but we couldn’t get a hold of them. Or we could and then they wouldn’t show up for the interview,” says Cipollo.

Or there would be dozens and dozens of applicants, for, say, a line cook position, but few, if any, were actually qualified.

In fact, Cipollo cites a line cook applicant whose last job was ‘chicken catcher’ on a farm...literally.

Is it because of the money?

Anyone who has worked in the restaurant industry has been on one side of the fence: the side where you can show up for a couple of hours smelling and looking good, and ‘walk’ in a few hours still smelling and looking good with a few hundred bucks in your pocket.

Or the side where you toil over hot stoves with sharp objects at breakneck speeds for 11 hours, and leave with about $100 toward your paycheque.

“He makes half of what they (servers) make. And yet his job requires more skill. More sweat equity. More risks—of cuts, sprains and strains,” says Cipollo. “People don’t want to do this anymore. The money’s just not there.”

And yet, in many cases, it hasn’t been there for a while: “Cooks are paid the same today as they were 15 years ago,” says Cipollo, an industry veteran who worked for a chain for nearly 15 years before breaking out on his own.

Depending on the position and the location, generally, kitchen staff make a jump above minimum wage, somewhere between $13 and $17/hour.

Sinclair, who worked for one of Canada’s largest restaurant chains for decades before becoming a consultant, says what you have to wonder is, “…Why is that guy leaving a job that’s $14.25 an hour to go make $14.50 across the street? Is it really about that quarter difference?” 

Or is it about something else?

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Perhaps instead of the word that begins with ‘m’, says Sinclair, restaurants should consider one that starts with ‘l’. Leadership.

“The pay is the easiest thing to put your finger on. I don’t get paid enough…for that *#@!.”

The nine days in a row. The 13 hour days.

The no weekends off.

The snooty servers who throw dirty plates at me and don’t know my name.

The kitchen manager who doesn’t acknowledge good, hard work (Man, I rocked that steak order!).

“If they took those things out, gave them better leadership, better work-life balance, pay probably wouldn’t be an issue, but it’s hard for people to articulate or they don’t want to point fingers at the boss. So they just say, ‘I don’t get paid enough,’” says Sinclair.

And how can you combat poor pay or culture challenges anyway?

When Cipollo’s team decided there’s got to be a better way, that they had to try something different, they decided to include the wage amount in their job ads. And it was a wage noticeably but not significantly higher than other kitchens.

“Suddenly we saw a swing in the type of applicants we were getting. They were guys who were already working in other places.”

The other draw for The Local Restaurants was its ‘anti-assembly line’ kitchen culture. In addition to paying above the local average, Cipollo and his team knew some cooks really want the chance to grow and learn.  

“They’re looking for places where there’s something in it for them. Wages are great, but what else is there for me in terms of growth and learning? Will this lead to better things for me?”

 - Michael Cipollo - Chef/Owner - Local Restaurants Inc. 

Sinclair agrees: “A lot of culinary people are looking to grow.”  

But he says different restaurant models appeal to different types of people.

“There are two different types of people you find on resumes: The type who don’t want to be at chains because they want that creativity, and the people who don’t want to be at independents because they’re not comfortable with that lack of structure.”

For Sinclair, it comes back to the leadership, engagement and recognition.

“When you’re in a culture where it’s us against them, that resentment happens more. You want your culture to be more of a team.”

Tell the kitchen they rocked it. Better yet, have the servers tell the kitchen they rocked it tonight.

“That’s what they want to hear, and they don’t necessarily want to hear it from managers. They want to hear it from servers. Otherwise it’s like, I’m just a slug.”

Cipollo believes there are some other non-monetary ways to boost morale at the back.

“You have to take care of your people. Give them a Friday night off to go to their brother’s wedding. We don’t charge for meals or uniforms. They get tipped out.”

What are other people doing to overcome the incredible difference between back-of-house and front-of-house pay?

Of course, you’ve probably heard about restaurants eliminating tipping or states that moved to a $15 minimum wage.

And then you may have read about how some of those restaurants (ie Crabshack in the US) reverted back to their old ways in most of their stores. Because in most cases, it means if wages go up, food costs have to go up too. And people don’t generally like paying $4 more for that same burger.

Do diners play a part?

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“As long as there’s competition on price, consumers make the decisions with their pocketbooks,” says Cipollo.

For that $4 more burger, “…A few people might say, ‘This is great, I’m supporting this’ but that’s a small piece of the demographic. It’s not going to change the industry.”

Society might also be responsible for churning out a generation of kids “who don’t want to work. They want to go out and catch Pokemon or play Xbox.” 

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Topics: Restaurant Staff Hiring, Restaurant Culture