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With Charleston hospitality staffing app mixing up labor market, our critic worked a shift

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Andrew Gilmartin greets a group of diners at the entrance to Rappahannock Oyster Bar before seating them for dinner on April 29, 2021, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

The table at the back right corner of Rappahannock Oyster Bar’s expanded patio, the four-top at approximately 2 o’clock if you’re facing the Cigar Factory parking lot, is known internally as Table 94. I can remember that because it’s my high school graduation year. Easy.

Inside, the 40s are lined up in sequential order against the barroom wall, which I can keep in my head if I think about malt liquor.

Closer to the kitchen, Table 81 doesn’t have any neighboring numbers in its vicinity, but I’m pretty sure Prince Charles married Diana in 1981, so don’t have to wonder why that’s a very special standalone.

As for the 60s, if they lend themselves to an invincible mnemonic device, I haven’t hit on it yet.

When I’m asked to run a first course to Table 63, the best I can do is to showily parade the bread flight through the crowded dining room in search of an expectant face, and then hope I don’t get too many questions about the accompanying fava bean spread.

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Taryn Barney adds sauce to a plate of oysters before carrying it to a table at Rappahannock Oyster Bar on April 29, 2021, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

In my defense, I only had 10 minutes of training to be a server assistant at Rappahannock, same as everyone else who claims a shift through GigPro, a Charleston-based online platform which connects hospitality workers and food businesses with an immediate need for backup help. Since the start of 2021, the app has gone from a curious startup to an integral component of Charleston area restaurant operations.

(Unlike everyone else, I didn’t keep the wages I earned since it’s a clear conflict of interest to take money from a restaurant. But it’s also dubious to donate labor, so the $102.60 netted for my five hours of work went to nonprofit Pay It Forward Charleston.)

According to GigPro co-founder Benjamin Ellsworth, dozens of local restaurants, bars, hotels and catering companies desperate for staff to handle unprecedented demand are collectively posting about 200 shifts a week.

“We couldn’t do this without them,” Rappahannock’s general manager Kyle Anderson said.

At the time of this writing, FIG was offering $17 an hour for a Friday night dishwasher, Emeline was offering $24 for a Saturday daytime event server and Home Team BBQ was offering $20 an hour for a Sunday brunch line cook, among 33 other contract jobs available to workers who register for the system by uploading a short bio and headshot.

“Charleston exploded so rapidly, and I don’t see it slowing down,” Ellsworth said. “Right now, it’s high demand: We’re Uber; it’s 2 a.m. and everyone’s drunk and needs a ride.”

Just like Uber, by radically recalibrating supply and demand, GigPro allows its users to reach different day-to-day decisions involving work, trust and money. What’s unclear are the setup’s long-term consequences.

Will GigPro smooth over restaurants’ staffing struggles and draw people back to the industry?

Or will their ad hoc approach to hiring destabilize teams and inhibit efforts to cultivate a healthier workplace culture ripe with benefits and development opportunities?

Will GigPro give food-and-beverage workers more control over their schedules and better pay for their work?

Or will their unattached status put them further at the mercy of employers and undermine attempts to reposition restaurant work as a respected profession?

The likely answer to all of those questions is yes.

'I didn’t start the crisis'

When Ellsworth and chef Sean Brock launched GigPro in November 2019, it was known as Sidegig.

Ellsworth liked the name because the partners envisioned the platform as freeing chefs from the drudgery of holding down two full-time jobs. But the person who had previously trademarked the name told Ellsworth it would take $50,000 to buy his blessing: Ellsworth wished him luck and purchased the GigPro domain for $11.99.

Initially, GigPro only existed as an awkward desktop interface. Very few restaurant owners could be bothered to fuss with it.

“It was clunky,” recalled restaurateur Karalee Fallert of All Good Industries, who’s known Ellsworth since he worked for her at Monza in the early 2010s. Ellsworth had the epiphany that sparked GigPro while dealing with an elusive dishwasher at Fallert’s The Royal American.

Yet it was apparent to GigPro’s founders that the staffing crisis which gripped hospitality prior to the COVID-19 pandemic could strangle restaurants when customers came back.

“If I stepped out of this industry in March 2020 and I had any knowledge, you couldn’t pay me to come back,” said Ellsworth, a trained chef who spent decades in restaurant kitchens. “It’s not that people don’t want to work, they don’t want to work in this industry.”

Amid the pandemic, GigPro developed a user-friendly mobile app for its Charleston; Nashville, Tenn.; and Charlotte markets. Posting or picking up a shift is now as straightforward as ordering a 12-inch cheese pizza, although the monetary value of transactions is significantly higher.

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Mauricio Velasquez sets a plate of food down for customers during dinner at Rappahannock Oyster Bar on April 29, 2021, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Restaurant owners attuned to labor costs carp about GigPro rates being displayed so prominently, since they can’t get away with paying a dishwasher $16 an hour when a restaurant down the street is promising $19 an hour for the same work. As the weekend approaches and competition intensifies, workers watch those dangled dollar signs creep upward.

Owners know that the dishwashers on their payroll, who make much less each night, keep an eye on those figures, too.

Those complaints don’t sway Ellsworth, who says, “If you have a line of people with applications in their hands, you can hate me all day long. But it’s just not the case. I didn’t start the crisis; I’m here to hopefully solve it.”

Fixing what’s broken

GigPro didn’t invent the idea of segmenting restaurant work into freelance shifts. Apps such as Pared, Instawork, Shiftgig and Jitjatjo were well established in major cities before COVID-19 shook up the food-and-beverage sector, although they were generally viewed as scourges rather than saviors.

One week before authorities attributed the first U.S. death to the coronavirus, The Washington Post published a story titled “Apps have turned restaurant work into a gig economy hustle,” detailing the punishing hours that a New York City cook kept at various venues to cover his living costs.

Gig apps “let kitchen staff work more hours in a broken system,” the disaffected cook was quoted as saying.

What sets GigPro apart, Ellsworth claims, is its founders are intimately familiar with the industry’s fractures.

“We are not Silicon Valley,” Ellsworth said. “We’re chefs. This entire business was built out of the Chucktown F&B Collective Facebook group. Nobody’s been successful at what we’re trying to do because they set themselves up like a digital staffing agency and the worker is beholden to it.”

By contrast, he said, GigPro workers are encouraged to forge independent relationships with the businesses which hire them. They’re assessed a 5 percent fee on each gig, plus 38 cents an hour for insurance. GigPro charges businesses 15 percent of whatever the worker is paid.

Otherwise, GigPro doesn’t get too involved in the gigs it facilitates. Ellsworth vets restaurants, which means he confirms managers won’t balk at paying $15 an hour for a dishwasher in a state where dishwashers on average earn $10.26 an hour.

But GigPro doesn’t run background checks on workers, even though workplace violence is becoming a weighty concern for hospitality professionals as stress and exhaustion mount. Developments as seemingly trivial as running out of asparagus are occasioning fistfights on the line, according to Charleston area restaurant workers.

While it’s not just the previously convicted who are prone to lash out, restaurants have long hired people whose criminal histories would disqualify them from other jobs. The downside of that forgiving attitude was grimly illustrated in 2017 when a former Virginia’s on King dishwasher who had previously served a 20-year prison sentence fatally shot the downtown Charleston restaurant’s chef.

Still, Ellsworth maintains GigPro is just following standard procedure for the sector.

“When is the last time you called for a reference?” he asks rhetorically of owners who say it’s impossible to fill openings. At Charleston area restaurants, “if you have a pulse, you’re hired.”

Aside from the potentially serious risks posed by one-time employees, the platform allows businesses to rate workers. Managers can dock points if a pro camps out in the bathroom with his phone for most of his shift, for instance.

Businesses are also asked to report when pros skip out on scheduled shifts. No-shows are suspended for two weeks, although they’re still allowed to access the app and view gigs, since Ellsworth believes the best motivator for better behavior is knowing the price of mistakes.

Yet if workers have problems with the places where they gig, there is no formalized way for them to warn fellow pros.

Amanda Olsen, who’s completed 14 GigPro shifts, said her only complaint about the platform is it doesn’t let workers rate their experiences. She’d like to be able to tell other workers “if management just sits in the office, if the place is clean and if the place is known for posting gigs that say 5 p.m. until 10 p.m., but really you’re there until 2 in the morning.”

Money talks

Olsen hadn’t planned on ever working another food-and-beverage shift.

She was a manager for Queen Street Hospitality when Gov. Henry McMaster in March 2020 shut down on-premise dining across South Carolina. The executive order prompted restaurants to lay off tens of thousands of workers, Olsen among them. Over the last 14 months, she’s focused on parenting her two children and finishing her business degree.

“For me personally, enough was enough,” Olsen said of her time in the hospitality industry.

Or close to enough.

After Ellsworth asked Olsen’s fiancé to apply for kitchen shifts posted by Handcraft Kitchen & Cocktails, which was then short a chef, her fiancé realized the Mount Pleasant restaurant could use Olsen’s help, too. She’d previously downloaded the app on a whim but hadn’t “messed around with it” until she saw how quickly she could turn her restaurant skills into cash. GigPro aims to pay its users within three days.

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“People who have worked in the industry” make up most of GigPro’s worker pool, Ellsworth said, although that’s a descriptor which comprises half of the nation’s adults. According to the National Restaurant Association, one out of every two Americans has held a job in food service.

Those kinds of statistics inspire Ellsworth to imagine people in other professional fields signing on with GigPro out of civic duty.

“If you can wash dishes, you’re really helping out an industry that’s been clobbered,” he said. “Everyone is so appreciative just to have someone there, and most likely you’re going to eat pretty well.”

Family meals aren’t guaranteed, but for dabblers, the prospect of getting paid to eat at The Ordinary after a stretch in its dish pit is enticing. An unconfirmed rumor circulating among restaurateurs, possibly rooted in their worries about the app upturning tradition, holds that tourists who can’t secure tables through reservation sites are signing up to bus them instead.

Ellsworth said he’s never heard of vagabond food fans trying that tactic, but he was of course taken with the notion.

Even so, it’s doubtless the promise of a triple-digit payout that’s luring teachers, firefighters and retail clerks to GigPro. South Carolinians on average earning less than the $15 an hour that’s the GigPro floor include health care aides, nursing assistants, hairdressers, ambulance drivers and funeral attendants.

Also in that group: Line cooks, bartenders, dishwashers, restaurant servers and restaurant hosts.

Many GigPro workers haven’t just worked in the industry, they’re working in the industry right now. Even Anderson, the general manager at Rappahannock, set up an account so he can snag shifts elsewhere on his days off.

Frustrated restaurant managers say workers aren’t all waiting for days off to scan the shifts on GigPro. They claim a line cook or dishwasher will call out and take an hourly gig elsewhere if the money’s good, disrupting service or forcing them to post the missing employee’s shift on GigPro for much more than they’d pay a full-timer.

“Will we be seen as evil? Probably,” Ellsworth said of business owners’ resentment. “But our main goal is to attract people back to the industry, and there’s no better way to do that than offer more money and let them choose.”

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Kyle Anderson (left) and Kyle Kendziuk shuck oysters for customer orders at Rappahannock Oyster Bar on April 29, 2021, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Good shifts

GigPro fits cleanly into the “Uber of X” paradigm that brought you on-demand trash haulers, yoga instructors, dog walkers and tour guides. But it owes its greatest debt to another aspect of the digital sphere: GigPro is built on the belief that you can rent everything and return anything, including a new job.

Proponents of hospitality gigging liken each shift to a tryout for the employer.

“It’s like speed dating,” said Andrea Ziomek, owner of the Brunch Holiday food truck and co-creator of FoodTruck Gig Work CHS, a new Facebook group that matches workers with understaffed trucks. “Maybe people say, ‘I really have more fun on Brunch Holiday than someone else’s truck.’ My hope is everybody kind of finds their place.”

Ziomek said trucks have it even worse than restaurants because they need help during the day when schoolteachers and other low-paid employees aren’t available. But she’s optimistic that if truck owners get even one shift to show off what makes their work meaningful, giggers will consider blazing a management path through food service.

“A lot of us are looking for someone we can mold to take over for us,” she said. “That’s where trucks are stagnating. This is literally a group to try to save our industry.”

Fallert of All Good Industries said her team’s enthusiasm for GigPro shot up when they stopped thinking of it as a stopgap solution and started thinking of it as a recruiting tool.

“What’s going to drive a team member to commit is making sure every shift is a good shift,” Fallert said. “There is a certain level of adrenaline that comes with our industry, but we don’t have to make it stressful, only good shifts.”

A GigPro shift is the perfect starting point for courtship, Fallert said, because restaurant managers don’t have to worry about being stood up. Of 18 applicants scheduled for interviews through Indeed, only about five typically show up, whereas 95 percent of GigPro workers arrive as scheduled.

“It’s a better investment of our time and money, and feels less obscure,” Fallert said.

Putting a prospective employee in the kitchen before making a job offer is a longstanding restaurant practice. Until very recently, though, stages were expected to volunteer, a custom in blatant violation of federal labor law. The only thing that restaurants gave hopeful cooks was a hard time.

“During my stages, I certainly knew who the alpha predator was,” New York City chef Wylie Dufresne wrote in a 2014 essay.

In the current climate, nobody is more alpha than a line cook drifting away from the industry.

“The reason I like GigPro is because it evens the playing field,” said Olsen, the food-and-beverage refugee who picked up several shifts at her fiancé’s urging. “Now the restaurant has to stage: Let us see if you’re good enough.”

Unlike an unpaid intern, who could presumably make it through a shift without revealing a tendency to dawdle or leave cleanup tasks for coworkers, Olsen said a restaurant can’t masquerade as a decent place to work. There are too many people involved to pull off a swindle during service.

“Someone gives you a spiel and a week later, you’re like, ‘What did I sign myself up for?’ ” Olsen said. “This gives you a chance to find out. There are a lot of big-name restaurants here in Charleston and you think, ‘I definitely want to work there.’ But do you really?”

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Angela Hind removes a stack of plates from a table after diners have finished their dinner at Rappahannock Oyster Bar on April 29, 2021, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Quality control

Depicting gig work as a source of leverage and power for workers is at odds with the popular portrayal of those caught up in the gig economy as exploited and abused. But economist Juliet B. Schor, who in 2020 published "After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked and How to Win it Back," found the true picture isn’t so stark.

“The characterization of workers as ‘Uberworked and Underpaid,’ is only one story of platform work,” Schor wrote. “And in our research, it was by no means the most common.”

Schor and her assistants found that gig workers who report they’re miserable are those who are wholly dependent on gigs for income, such as the weary cook profiled by the Washington Post. But giggers who pick up the occasional shift for gas money are far less likely to grumble about being ruled by algorithms or feeling like cogs.

In other words, there’s no reason to worry about the mythic GigPro user who scrubbed pots just to get a closer look at downtown Charleston’s legendary food scene.

But that doesn’t mean restaurant gigging is a win all around: It’s the people seated in the dining room who may stand to suffer.

Jiwoong Shin is a professor of marketing at Yale University. He investigates conundrums that business owners face frequently, such as whether it’s better for a firm to offer discounts to their loyal customers or their competitors’ customers.

Shin recently looked into a dilemma presented by a former student who owns Chinese restaurants.

“Uber kills my business,” the man told Shin.

“What do you mean?” Shin asked, unsure how ride-sharing could hurt a restaurant. Was Uber Eats the culprit?

No, the man explained. Line cooks were leaving his restaurant to drive for Uber; he couldn’t keep anyone employed long enough to train them properly. He was dealing with a constant shortage of experienced workers.

Intrigued, Shin set up an experiment. He and his team analyzed every Yelp review of restaurants in Austin where ride sharing was banned for one year by local legislation. When Uber and Lyft returned to town, the researchers found, “customer complaints suddenly increased significantly.”

The data was so overwhelming that Shin thought “across all restaurants, this cannot be true.” But after accounting for every possible variable other than restaurant workers jumping into the gig economy, Shin’s team concluded “service quality deteriorates consistently” when food-and-beverage employees are given the chance to earn money through gigging.

To maintain quality once Uber and Lyft start recruiting, restaurants would have to raise wages by 13 percent, said Shin, who hasn’t studied any of the hospitality gig platforms or their influence on the guest experience. Still, he theorizes that the phenomenon his team uncovered would apply.

“It’s going to be disruptive,” Ellsworth said of GigPro’s repercussions. “But to institute change, you have to change the institution — somebody’s got to stir the pot.”

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Emily Edwards describes a dish to customers at the bar inside Rappahannock Oyster Bar on April 29, 2021, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

On the clock

I didn’t stir any pots during my Rappahannock gig because I’d be useless on a line. GigPro has recently started adding a mint green “no experience required” banner to some advertised shifts, but the tag is pretty much reserved for dishwashing.

As a server assistant I was responsible for “clearing and resetting tables, helping to polish silverware and assisting in running food.”

From my perspective as a reporter, running food was the most tantalizing part. I set out for my shift in blue jeans and a black t-shirt, as the GigPro app instructed, certain I’d put a schnitzel in front of a vegan or drop a tray of oysters. Knowing that every downtown Charleston restaurant is severely understaffed, I envisioned hungry diners ripping appetizers out of my hand and berating me for not knowing where Rappahannock stashes its malt vinegar.

This story would write itself, I was sure.

Then nothing interesting happened.

Rappahannock runs a highly professional operation, despite having fewer than the optimal number of employees. Conditions weren’t frantic enough for pratfalls or any other reader-pleasing craziness.

(It has even fewer employees now than it did during my one-night stand, when Anderson told me he drew the line at posting cook shifts on GigPro. The following week, I noticed Rappahannock looking for line cooks on the app. “Both of our line cooks that were working the night you were here quit with no notice, so that put us in a pretty tight spot,” Anderson explained. “We did have good luck with the (GigPro) cooks we brought in but couldn’t give them very complicated dishes at all.”)

Also, I wasn’t totally asea. Falling in with the front-of-house crew felt like what I imagine a pick-up game is like for people who play basketball — I didn’t put in a standout performance, but the moves and lingo were all instinctively familiar. I didn’t have any trouble locating the malt vinegar.

Servers just as reflexively accepted me into their routines, handing off glasses and menus with the confidence that I’d know where to put them. What GigPro has tapped into successfully is the fact that people in restaurants are largely interchangeable.

For the food-and-beverage industry, that might be the biggest problem of all.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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