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!