“A small group of Bay Area restaurateurs argue (the restaurant labor) shortage is an illusion, that anyone who claims he or she can’t find staff is standing in a field of ripe tomatoes complaining of hunger. Locol, as well as Cala, Home of Chicken and Waffles and a cluster of nonprofit job-training programs, find reserves of talent in places many don’t look: East Oakland, Richmond, probation departments and re-entry houses.” — The San Francisco Chronicle, July 2, 2016

If you’re looking to start a conversation with a chef in any sizable U.S. city, ask her how she’s set for staff: Chefs and restaurant owners across the country are grappling with severe employee shortages that they claim are approaching crisis levels.

The problem, which first blossomed about five years ago, has been exacerbated by the sheer number of new restaurants, growing intolerance for brutal working conditions and aspiring chefs’ impatience to climb the culinary ladder.

Employers’ gripes don’t wash with some observers, who say higher wages would make the issue go away. But restaurateurs who say they’re already charging as much as customers are willing to pay are seeking more creative solutions.

The restaurants profiled by The San Francisco Chronicle are alerting social service agencies and defense attorneys that they’re looking to hire workers with criminal records. The owners of Cala, an upscale Mexican seafood restaurant, even “started wine and service training in a spare office in San Francisco’s Adult Probation Department.”

They warn they haven’t hit on a panacea — the high cost of transportation to restaurants located in ritzy areas and the adrenaline-fueled atmosphere of most kitchens present serious challenges to many former offenders. But 40 percent of the staffers at Cala, which last November earned three-and-one-half stars from Chronicle critic Michael Bauer, were recently incarcerated.

In Charleston, the understaffing crisis is so severe that restaurant owners have lately dispensed with the genteel local tradition of checking with peers before hiring someone away from their restaurants. Yet the “every man for himself” attitude hasn’t much helped the situation. Almost every time a new restaurant here postpones its opening date, or limits service hours more strictly than anticipated, it’s because there aren’t enough workers to go around.

Social service organizations and schools are aware of the opportunities associated with Charleston’s restaurant growth, and have instituted new culinary training programs, such as RISE at One80 Place and the hospitality academy at St. John’s High School. But many trained cooks prefer to work at chain restaurants located near their homes, where shifts are predictable and, sometimes, benefits are available.

Thus far, no independent restaurant in downtown Charleston has actively pursued hiring ex-cons.

Hanna Raskin