How the cook shortage might affect your dinner plate (and pocketbook)

Is the kitchen staff shortage affecting your dinner plate?

Is the kitchen staff shortage affecting your dinner plate?

I recently went to a restaurant I was very much looking forward to trying a second time. The kitchen is run by a name chef who I like very much, a chef with many years of proven culinary capabilities.

But this time around, the food was rough. Really rough.The risotto was separating, the chicken was overcooked and the fish tasted like it hadn't seen any seasoning. I peeked into the open kitchen: Skeleton crew, more interested in cleaning up for the night than attending to tickets.

I had spoken to this same chef a few weeks prior about the tough time he, and most everyone locally, was having staffing their kitchens. He had been hiring practically anyone standing upright, even sharing staff with a nearby kitchen. I felt for him. But on this night with the gloppy risotto, I felt for myself and the $80+ I would be parting with. 

In the past year and a half, the Twin Cities have seen a record number of new restaurants. Estimates hover around 200 and counting. Meanwhile, the entire country is suffering from a shortage of good culinary talent. Culinary schools are closing thanks to overwhelming debt and loan default.

But what does all of this mean for you, the diner? 

Randy Stanley is a 34-year-veteran of the industry and current owner of 6 Smith in Wayzata, a stately modern American bar and restaurant with a boat slip and Lake Minnetonka twinkling at its periphery. His resume includes many notable restaurants including W.A. Frost, Figlio, and Manny's. The answer to the shortage is complex one, he says.

Randey Stanley is able to pay his cooks a few dollars extra during peak season at his restaurant 6 Smith on Lake Minnetonka.

Randey Stanley is able to pay his cooks a few dollars extra during peak season at his restaurant 6 Smith on Lake Minnetonka.

There's the downturn in immigrant labor and increased competition for unskilled labor in a number of different industries (which is not to say that cooking is an unskilled profession, but many kitchens are turning to unskilled hires). Compensation is often not commensurate with experience, and the hours are long and work intense. The sudden proliferation of restaurants has made the situation worse and an increasing de-glamorization of kitchens in popular culture has scratched the shine right off of culinary work. "Screaming chefs on T.V. haven't helped our industry," he says. 

The collision of all of these factors is something of a perfect storm. 

When a new hire arrives, there often isn't time for thorough training. In short order,  he or she may be in over their head, and either quit or get cut. "Someone will walk out because they had a bad shift," says Stanley, who is "absolutely" feeling the shortage even though he's got a core staff of 18 who haven't left since the beginning. 

The restaurateur has to respond to the complex problem with a complex response. Stanley's has included pay increases, training programs, growth opportunities, incentive programs like shoe and uniform budgets — even recruitment bonuses. (Know someone who might want to work at 6 Smith? You could get paid if they stay over three months!) 

How has Stanley been able to afford these efforts? He's had to increase his prices — about 15 percent across the board. Thus far, he says his customer base has been willing to accept the increases and are still happily dining at 6 Smith. But he doesn't know how much further he can push. 

John Rimarcik has been in the restaurant business for an astounding 65 years. He currently owns a host of Twin Cities restaurants, including the Monte Carlo, Runyon's, Annie's Parlour, and others. He estimates that over the course of his career, he has opened and closed close to one hundred establishments. He's seen cook shortages in the past, but this one may be the worst and the longest, he says.

He sees fewer people entering the industry, and more people exiting because they've had enough. 

"There's no reason to be in this industry unless you have a fire in your belly to do it." 

He paints a picture from his own experience: 

"A breakfast shift might start at 4:30 a.m. and then at 6 the rush starts. By the time that's through, I realize I have to urinate. But then there's a mini-rush, I have roasts in the oven, the deliveries start, and by the time the lunch rush starts, I realize haven't gone yet. You're not off your station, you're not off your feet, and the person in the front ordering soup doesn't know or care that anything has happened. He just needs his soup." 

It's stressful stuff, and Rimarcik gets that. He doesn't like the Millennial bashing that coincides with the shortage. "They just want what everyone wants and that's a good life," he says. 

But he also has a half-dozen restaurants to staff.  So there's less vetting before the hire; instead, the vetting happens afterward. "Instead of knowing that they're experienced and quality before we hire, now we have to wait and see." 

Do customers notice? He says he doesn't think so, but he also reckons there may be a wholesale lowering of standards in the American public's tastes. If every place is just a little less good than it could be, will anyone notice? Again, he doesn't think so. He says he asks "the old people" (his contemporaries) all the time what they think about the current quality of dining versus in the "good old days," and people say they generally like the way things are just fine.

But he notices. 

Beyond questions of quality, fixes will come down to shortened hours, closing restaurants and not opening them. Rimarcik says he's shuttered restaurants just so he can re-distribute staff elsewhere. Would you like to see the century-old Minneapolis gem Pracna on Main (known as the oldest restaurant in the city) reopened?

Rimarcik owns it, too, and he says re-opening is not tenable. He estimates it would take at least 65 employees to run it properly, employees he doesn't have. He can't open it, even though the place is turn-key ready, right down to the "ice machines cranking away." The restaurant has been shuttered for a year and a half. 

As for whether he'll increase prices to lure kitchen staff with higher wages, Rimarcik says that every restaurant would have to do it simultaneously, otherwise customers will simply flock to the less expensive places. And Stanley says that even at his restaurant, the higher wages are only plausible during peak times of year (his restaurant is highly affected by seasonality thanks to his situation on Lake Minnetonka). 

Things have yet to reach a breaking point. Cooks are still cooking, however begrudgingly, at more or less the same low rate of pay (anywhere from roughly $10 to $20 hourly). Some kitchens are lucky to have core staff who are loyal and remain, sometimes literally for decades. Others are operating with skeleton crews that are precarious but workable.

Meanwhile, restaurants continue to open. When I ask Stanley whether he thinks new restaurateurs have considered who is going to staff their kitchens, he answers, "Probably not." 

For now, prices remain relatively steady, food is more or less acceptable, and restaurants can keep up the facade that things are business-as-mostly-usual. The hospitality industry is a show, after all, and the show has to go on. 

The guy up front ordering soup doesn't care that anything has happened. 

For now.