Where Did All the Chefs Go?

...and how can we bring them back?

If "too many cooks in the kitchen" is a recipe for disaster, what happens when there aren’t enough? For the past several years, restaurants have struggled to attract and retain talented cooks. To understand why this is happening, try looking at it from multiple perspectives. The trend can be attributed to several factors that, put together, have driven chefs out of cities and - for some - out of the business.

High volume of restaurant openings

Thanks to the post-recession economic boom, an entrepreneurial spirit has swept the restaurant industry. New places are popping up left and right in cities across the US, offering many more opportunities to people trained in the culinary arts (a number that is also dwindling). In fact, chefs are one of the top ten job markets predicted to expand between 2014 and 2024. With the unemployment rate hovering around 4%, cooks have their pick of jobs from eateries both old and new that are parched of talent.

The rent is too damn high!

The need for cooks is especially evident in big foodie cities like New York and San Francisco, where the cost of living simply outweighs the typical salary of a chef. The average monthly rent for an apartment in San Francisco is more than $3,000, which is just not sustainable in the long run. This leaves back of house workers to commute in from areas around cities, often spending hours on public transportation or in a car to get to work every day. Some cooks have found alternative career routes in smaller, developing food cities like Portland or Nashville, which offer an abundance of jobs and a more affordable lifestyle.

Other opportunities come knocking

Restaurants aren’t the only places looking to hire them. Food startups, corporations, and private catering companies offer them alternative opportunities to advance in their field without working their way up the traditional ladder of restaurant hierarchy. With more flexible hours and a less rigorous schedule, more and more small groups like these are cropping up and attracting talent. The rate of job hopping is also a culprit. It is higher than ever in an expanding economy with demand in new areas. Companies in other industries like Uber, Lyft, and GrubHub are attractive employers because of their flexibility and reasonable pay rates without working long hours.  

‘Go big or go home’ mentality

The road to becoming a successful chef is long and difficult, with not much reward for some. With shows on Food Network reaching huge levels of popularity, it’s easy to want to become a celebrity chef. Unfortunately, not everyone who sets out in the food industry reaches that level of success. In fact, very few do. Those who meet with hardship and difficulty are now more likely to look elsewhere for a job or career path, particularly millennials.

What can you do?

Here are 5 steps you can take to combat the sparse talent pool:

1. Become more attractive - For example, offer comprehensive and unique employee benefit programs that they won’t be able to get elsewhere. Guarantee higher pay by eliminating tipping and switching to a gratuity-included model, as Union Square Hospitality Group has. Additionally, try fostering a sense of community in the workplace and encourage the formation of relationships between staff members. It will make the kitchen a more efficient and enjoyable space that workers will remember as one of a kind - something they can’t find anywhere else.

2. Simplify menus and modify hours - Take a look at your menu for dishes you can simplify for at least part of the day, making it easier for line cooks or other staff members to put together. This will reduce the number of chefs needed in the kitchen and the amount of time they will need to spend there. Alternatively, venues have had to adjust their dining hours because of a short-staffed kitchen, serving meals for fewer hours a day or pushing back restaurant openings.

3. Consolidate roles - This strategy works well to cut down on the number of employees, allowing for higher wages and boosting relationships between members of a small staff. Petit Crenn, a French bistro in San Francisco, uses an efficient system where fewer employees contribute to a number of different tasks and receive higher compensation for their labor.

4. Look beyond traditional hiring models - Some restaurateurs are beginning to think outside of the box when it comes to hiring. At Cama, a Mexican eatery in the Bay Area, ex-cons and recovering addicts can be found in both front of house and back of house roles. The restaurant partners with the Delancey Street Foundation to help provide a training ground for the organization as they are rehabilitated with relevant skills and experience.

5. Use talent search tools and websites - Referrals, internal hiring, and newspaper job ads clearly aren’t doing the trick. To combat low response rates, it may make sense for you to try digital channels to expand your applicant pool. Harri’s end-to-end workforce operating system connects you with thousands of job seekers in the restaurant and hospitality industry and helps you find your ideal candidate. Finding the right fit for the role is essential to reduce turnover rates and engage your workers.

The restaurant industry is dominating the workforce, and now that the jobs are here it’s more important than ever to bring back the people who will fill them!

The Automation of the Food Industry

It was only a matter of time before tech took over the restaurant industry: from ordering kiosks to biometric employee clocking, the hospitality sector is learning to welcome the changes that come along with the digital age. The the automation of food is here - but how far will it go? Is the inevitable robot takeover upon us? As an industry that relies heavily on unskilled manual labor, do restaurants stand to be the most vulnerable to technological advancements?

Robots vs. People

Some restaurants have already stepped into the future and begun to look to technology to carry out basic tasks. In Pasadena, CaliBurger uses its burger-flipping robot Flippy to turn patties at the griddle rather than line cooks. Up the coastline, California pizzeria Zume uses robots to make pizzas. The Tipsy Robot, a bar in Las Vegas, features robots who can mix, pour, and garnish drinks for patrons in less than 90 seconds.

Automation draws attention and excitement, serving as a clear example of the vast applications of technology and perhaps a peek into the future.


Robots performing basic tasks is one thing; they can easily be programmed to carry out a few different motions and repeat them indefinitely. But can robots replace chefs, the backbone of creativity in hospitality? The masterminds behind original recipes and concepts have remained superior thus far. IBM supercomputer Watson was used to collaborate on menu ideation at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. It was fed a bunch of recipes and asked to come up with new combinations of flavors and dishes based on their molecular compatibility and cuisine type. Watson provided lists of new ingredient combinations, but could not account for measurements, quantity, or presentation. It was up to chefs to turn the mix-and-match tastes into actual dishes.


MIT recently announced the development of an artificial intelligence software that can offer recipes for a dish just by looking at a photo of it. The AI works by analyzing an image and searching its database of over a million recipes to find a potential match. It’s purpose is to eventually stand as an alternative to cookbooks, but the technology is still far from accuracy - it couldn’t even identify french fries!

Basically, there’s no way it can match the knowledge and accessibility of cookbooks or their authors for years to come.

Virtual Reality as a Training Tool

Virtual reality has been used primarily as an entertainment device, syncing with smartphones and video game consoles to provide an ultra high-tech experience to everyday consumers. But its business applications - like risk-free employee field training - are slowly being realized and capitalized upon.

VR training tools and programs can be integrated into restaurant operations to help new hires learn the ropes. Rather than watching training videos, employees gain hands-on experience in a low-risk environment, which has proven to be more effective than some traditional training methods. Google tested out its VR training device with a coffee-making trial, where a trainee used a simulated espresso machine. When compared to a group that trained using Youtube videos, the VR group was quicker and more precise.

Robots are Here to Help

At the end of the day, food service is something that is inherently human and personal. No type of automation can deliver the creativity, attention, and care that restaurant staff members do. Sure, it’s cool to have robot bartenders whip up cocktails, but rest assured, restaurant workers are far from being replaced.

The integration of technology in restaurants will more likely cause a shift in roles rather than a mass elimination of them. Automation can carry out menial, time-consuming tasks with tireless efficiency. This way, employees are freed up to attend to customers and other issues while automated systems take care of things like ordering and payment. Panera, for one, has been able to improve its service by offering table delivery and actually hire more workers since installing kiosk systems for ordering.

While robots may change the roles of hospitality workers, humans remain superior, and we have averted the robot takeover for now. Phew.

Are Meal Kits a Threat to Restaurants?

Let’s Unpack This

When it comes to food service, it’s all about providing a good meal in minimal time. Home-cooked meals are no exception, but on a weeknight after a long day at work, a nutritious dinner may have to take the backseat to takeout or frozen pizza. The meal kit offers a delicious, healthy home-cooked meals in 30 minutes or less. With a variety of online recipes and dishes to choose from, all the ingredients arrive at your doorstep in a neatly packaged box for you to assemble like Ikea furniture (with less confusing instructions).

Companies like Just Add Cooking and Plated provide dinners for $8-$10 a person, coming in a bit above the average expense for groceries. They have proven their popularity amongst customer groups like Millennials and working parents, who have expendable income and lack the time or skill to plan, purchase, and prepare dinner.

Impact of Wage Hikes

Wages have risen for restaurant workers in the past few years, and with more minimum wage hikes and declining sales (read more on how to be prepared here), restaurant profits are suffering. The natural response is to raise prices, but that move is proving a dangerous for some. Rather than paying elevated prices for takeout or delivery, diners are opting for groceries or meal kits, whose price point is steady and home cooked aspect is appreciated.

The cost of construction is also going up as hourly rates for workers rise. Chain restaurants seeking to break ground on new locations may have to hold off, while delivery-based meal kit services continue to thrive.

Profit Potential

The $4 billion dollar meal kit market makes up only a tiny fraction of the food and grocery industry, but several companies are pursuing it.

Three weeks ago, Amazon became one of those companies. With a huge new player in the game, we have yet to see if more revenue be snatched from restaurants and grocery stores. The delivery juggernaut has already given investors cold feet on market competitors like Blue Apron. Don’t let them take a bite out of your sales too!

Next Steps

(1) How can restaurants stay ahead of falling profit margins? Assess every aspect of your restaurant to see where you can save. Time is money, so it’s more important than ever to consider the efficiency with which tasks are carried out.

(2) Take a look at where you’re sourcing your materials and ingredients to see if you can find better options. Reduce your electricity and water bills by opting for energy-efficient appliances. Adjust your recruiting process to ensure that you’re adding the best candidates to your team. Well-trained, competent, and happy employees will reduce turnover rates and time spent on training new hires.

(3) Alternatively, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Offering to deliver to your customers will increase the volume of orders and boost sales. Denny’s recently saw an uptick in off premise dining after offering on-demand delivery this May. Delivery is the biggest trend in hospitality, so if you’re not already using services like Grubhub and Seamless, it’s worth looking into.

Connecting to Gen Z

Move over, Millennials! Generation Z is here.

Who are they?

Born between 1996 and 2010, the oldest of the Centennials will begin to graduate college and enter the workforce in the coming years, and heads are turning towards these post-millennials. The question is, how will they change the playing field?

Not to be lumped in with Millennials, this younger generation is distinctly different, from their sense of identity to their use of technology. Unlike their older siblings, Gen Z is a more independent group of individuals while also being the most globally connected generation ever.

Having grown up during and after the Great Recession, this group of kids is set to be more realistic and hard working than their predecessors, with a more acute awareness of environmental and social issues. They are the largest and most diverse generation alive, outnumbering Millennials by about a million. The race to connect with them - as both consumers and employees - is on.

Technology as Communication

To these digital natives, technology is a second language. The dramatic changes brought on by the digital age are facts of life to them and have altered the way they think, learn, and absorb information. While Millennials created text-based interfaces like instant messaging and texting, Gen Z communicates through images. Opting for social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat over Facebook, these young consumers pick up information in a matter of seconds.

For an effective marketing strategy, learn to speak their language.

If you’re not on social media, take the time to set up a few accounts - they are an invaluable tool, not to mention that they come at no cost! Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat are used by millions of Americans, primarily under the age of 30. This summer, McDonald’s used Snapchat to recruit and hire 250,000 employees via “snaplication,” where an applicant could submit a 10-second video to the fast food company explaining why they would be a good candidate for a job. The move was curated to target their largest applicant age bracket and social media users: 16 to 22 year olds.

5 ways to effectively build your brand and market to Centennials:

  1. Entertain them - short bursts of information will grab their attention and allow them to instantly process what they’ve just seen. The average attention span of a person has dropped to 8 seconds, so make short and sweet to get your point across.

  2. A picture is worth a thousand words! If you can get your message across using images or video rather than text, it’ll garner interest and have more of an impact in those few seconds.

  3. Use multiple media channels - Gen Z’ers are pros at multitasking and using multiple screens at once. From LinkedIn to Pinterest, if they’re there, you should be too!

  4. Appeal to their curiosity and emphasize the value of your product or service. Many of them grew up in a household that suffered from the financial crash, so they want to know that their money is being spent well.

  5. Recognize their diversity and independence to make your content more relatable (and memorable) to Gen Z. Get to know your target audience and make it personal. If it feels more like a friendship rather than a producer-consumer relationship, you will be rewarded with their loyalty.

When it comes to staying relevant with the next gen, social media and tech are key. These teens take in information in a split second and lose interest just as fast, so having an impactful message in a few seconds is essential to your marketing brand.


Hospitality's Biggest Investments of 2017 (So Far!)

2017 may be halfway over, but it’s never too late to start thinking about business investments for the back half of the year. Today, we're reflecting on where people in the restaurant & hospitality industry have been focusing their time & money thus far (in case you're in need of a little inspiration!) 


From back-of-house to front-of-house, restaurants across the country are upgrading their tech. Expect to see more businesses investing in things like tableside ordering services, enhanced digital delivery and order tracking options, cloud-based employee scheduling, and mobile payment options (in fact, in a recent study, 67% of restaurants named mobile payments as their no. 1 innovation priority for 2017). Many businesses are also giving their BOH a facelift -- things like digital time clocking not only reduce wage and time theft such as buddy clocking, but it can also boost retention among employees (learn more about Harri’s digital time clock with facial recognition here).

Training & Development

Smart restaurateurs understand that your service is only as good as your people -- that’s why many businesses are turning to new and improved employee training programs as a means of improving their service, thus boosting return visitors and engagement. And with the talent market as competitive as its ever been, it’s crucial to retain good people and grow from within through a comprehensive development system. Whether it’s through a more streamlined onboarding process, partnering with third-parties to create updated training videos, interactive training sessions, or enhanced packages and growth opportunities, employers are getting creative about how they train and retain their staff. (Read more about Harri’s team management tools here.)

Customer Engagement

Many businesses gambled on rolling out a digital loyalty program in the first half of 2017, hoping that by personalizing communication to already highly-engaged customers, they could prolong the relationship as well as encourage them to organically spread the brand’s goodwill to new customers. (Read more about how to win over customers here.)


It’s amazing how big of an impact a little update can have. Whether it’s purchasing new furniture, artwork, or kitchen utensils and supplies, restaurateurs around the country are choosing to invest in their environment. This not only shows an audience that a business is able to stay with the times, it’s important for employees to take pride in their work space. (We’ve got the lowdown on the future of restaurant concepts - learn more here!)  

Data and Analytics

Restaurant operators who leverage software will have a competitive edge in the marketplace in 2017 and beyond. Using automated data and analytics, restaurateurs are able to understand on a deeper level what is truly driving their business. However, getting this type of specialized insight can be a challenge -- it’s hard to figure out the best way to view these numbers. Luckily, platforms like Harri’s Livewire are changing the game; allowing employers to view sales and labor side-by-side, gather important feedback from their employees, and make smart decisions about forecasting (learn more about Livewire here).