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HELP WANTED: Denver's Staffing Scramble Challenges Restaurateurs

The struggle is real and the labor crunch may just be the straw that breaks the camel's back in Denver's booming restaurant market.

Restaurants are predicated on concealing the chaos of the kitchen from the choreographed dance of the front-of-the-house. Of late, the heartburn felt in the food business, though kept mostly quiet from the consuming audience, has been caused by a severe labor shortage, impacting cooking staffs and restaurant owners alike.

It is an employee's world in the hospitality industry. Take one look at the food and beverage job listings on Craigslist and you will easily understand that a majority of restaurants and bars in Denver are hiring. Sure, not all at once, but in a month's span, a great number of them will have one or more positions available. And there are simply not enough qualified people to fill them all.

Justin Cucci, the savvy restauranteur behind Root DownLinger, and Ophelia's, says he started to notice the trend more than a year ago. When his restaurant group, Edible Beats, had previously posted job openings, enthusiastic and experienced applicants would spill in. More recently, it's been a slow trickle. He calls the problem a "byproduct of the restaurant industry getting more mainstream."

"Everyone is feeling it," says Steuben's executive Chef Brandon Biederman. He attributes the problem to the growing number of restaurants which offer people a lot of opportunity.

"Our experience is: limited response to ads placed for openings, people setting up interviews and then not showing up, and people accepting offers and then going somewhere else."

The robust economy paired with the glitz and glamour depicted on the Food Network –where young guns rise the ranks at lightening speeds and creativity alone appears to fuel fine-dining establishments – "has, I think given a false sense that anybody can open a restaurant and become successful," says Alex Seidel, chef-owner of Fruition and Mercantile Dining & Provision.

He shares that while both of his popular restaurants receive interest for job postings, "many do not fit the mold that we are searching for and would not be good additions to our culture." Currently, Mercantile's kitchen is not fully staffed, and as a result, the Union Station eatery is averaging 125 to 200 hours of overtime every week, just in the back-of-the-house. "That is not sustainable for a restaurant or the well-being of our team," Seidel says.

Bryan Dayton, owner and beverage director of Boulder's OAK at Fourteenth and Acorn, attributes the labor crunch to a growing collective loss of work ethic, in the service industry and beyond. "To be in the restaurant business, you have to be so physically and mentally strong. You're constantly moving, eight to ten hours a day, with no breaks, and you're constantly thinking about what's next. It's a true trade," Dayton explains.

He fears the industry has been romanticized to its own detriment, and workers are thus unwilling to put forth the necessary effort to get the job done up to high-quality standards. "It's astonishing to me how many people call out sick, don't show up or walk out," Dayton says, recalling moments of lost employees following bathroom clean-up duty and dress code reminders.

"Our company is hard to work at. It's all about the basics, but we have hundreds of basics, from how you open a bottle of wine to how you approach your guests. It's exhausting just to get the damn table set."

He and Biederman agree that alternative opportunities in fields such as technology, construction and the up-and-coming marijuana industry, have lured many Denver restaurant employees away.

"Money talks," Dayton says, "and in restaurants, we can't always afford to compete."

He confides that Oak recently endured its most substantial staff turnover in its roughly five-year history. Exceptions still exist though. During the interview process, a young woman who requested a server position was offered a back-wait role instead due to her limited experience. She took it and Dayton was stunned by her desire to learn and build her skills, something that has become much harder to find.

The hiring drought is not a Denver issue, but one that markets across the country are experiencing. Competition, however, has surged among the growing number of local restaurants. The associated job openings have severely outpaced the number of workers to fill said positions. Restaurant roles that candidates vied for only a year ago, are now overlooked by industry workers who hold the power because they can have their pick.

"With the lack of labor, people know they can quit at anytime and have no problem getting another job," says Hannah Garrett, the general manager of Moontower Tacos. Last week, Eater Denver announced that Moontower would quietly close its doors after more than two years in business. The cooking staff shortage was cited as one of the primary reasons of the closure.

"...a lot of younger staff are coming in expecting it to be all fun and games and not realizing that it is also a lot of work in a stressful environment." Garrett used Craigslist and word-of-mouth marketing to find her staff. It wasn't unusual for newly added members to the team to leave halfway through shifts when they realized the prep list was longer than expected. Moontower had a turnover rate of between 50 percent and 60 percent, according to Garrett, "which is about average, sadly," she says.

Biederman says he and his team have had to modify their hiring process, and are hiring candidates on the spot, rather than multiple sit-downs and a working interview, as they did before the uber competitive job market.

"We just can't afford to lose potentially good people to another offer by asking them to come back for several rounds of interviews anymore."

Dayton and his business partner Steve Redzikowski (who recently announced plans to open another restaurant) employ roughly 200 people now and by-and-large feel fortunate to have retained strong employees. But the veteran bartender sees the industry as being in collective "survival mode."

Cucci, Biederman, Dayton and other experienced restaurateurs draw in newcomers these days by offering competitive wages, 401K plans, health insurance, bonus packages, and other culturally-specific incentives. Newer and smaller operations cannot afford to do the same.

While Denver is undoubtedly in an out-to-eat renaissance, the staffing issue calls into question the present pace of restaurant growth. If the labor shortage snowballs, it is only a matter of time before issues become obvious to diners — slower service, diluting or deteriorating quality, and, likely, more restaurants closing their doors.


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