Are Denver's restaurants headed towards a crisis? Is there a pink elephant in the dining room that no one wants to talk about? This year, Denver has seen a boom in the number of eateries that are opening their doors; in the last two weeks alone, more than a dozen new restaurants started serving food. Where are the cooks and servers coming from to make these new businesses work? Will they stay? Is there balance and sustainability in the staffing of restaurants? Chef John Chad Little of Harman's Eat & Drink asked that and more questions on his Facebook page yesterday. The post got a variety of comments and 12 shares so far. We asked the chef to open up the discussion to the Eater reader community by sharing his thoughts here.
Restaurants always talk about sustainability. But do we ever think about staff sustainability? How is it possible that in 15 years pay rates have not budged for kitchen employees? How is it possible that I made more money an hour when I was 17 then I do now as a salaried employee?
It's frustrating to think that some of the smartest kids go to the most prestigious cooking schools in the country only to find them not even cooking in kitchens five years later. They are the smart ones though. They realize that you can work less hours and earn more money by just switching to working front of house. Who in their right mind would want to work more hours for less money?
If you went to the CIA for an associate degree it would cost you 80,000. Coming out of school you won't make more than 30,000 a year for a few years, and you really won't see much than 40,000 a year for the rest of your life unless you miraculously make it on your own or sell your soul to work for a hotel. Just to pay off your schooling at that rate if you spent 10% of your income paying off your loans would take you about 20 years! Forget about the people that are going to school for 4 years.
This is by no means a bash on servers. But kitchens are losing more and more talent because people can't simply afford to work in kitchens and I don't blame them.
Right now there is an extreme shortage of talented cooks in the Denver area. Almost every kitchen in the city is looking for them. We are very lucky to have a great team but are always looking to add talent. When you do find those soldiers who are crazy enough to go to war with you everyday underpaid, it's really an amazing thing. They are the backbone of the best restaurants in the city but don't get the respect they deserve. But it is a headache to keep these amazing individuals.
Currently it's a revolving door in restaurant kitchens. People leave to try to do their own thing at the small chance that they might actually make it. Or leave to work at the restaurant down the street for $1 more an hour. When so many people come and go, it's impossible to execute great food. You can usually still get good, but great comes from a well-oiled machine of bad asses that spend more time together than they do with their families.
How do you create kitchen positions that can reward people mentally and financially?
You can't simply tip out kitchen employees because no one working front of house would work for you.
You can't simply up pay rates because a restaurant already barely survives on 2-8% profit margin. Especially with rising rent, fuel costs, and food costs those margins are only going to shrink over the years.
What do we do as an industry to fix this problem? It seems we are working on a broken system financially and we need to figure out a better solution if we want to see our restaurants survive and thrive.