Short staffing endangers Charleston restaurants

Short staffing endangers Charleston restaurants

Trident Technical College Chef Instructor Scott Stefanelli explains to students in the butchery and charcuterie class how to weight-test sausage.

On an unremarkable Thursday last month, employers in Charlotte posted 21 food and beverage jobs on Craigslist. Another 48 openings were advertised in Atlanta. And in Charleston, a city with half a million fewer people, 93 food and beverage listings were added to the online employment board.

Even allowing for the seasonal nature of Charleston's hospitality economy, the numbers are a stark measure of the formidable staffing obstacles now faced by local restaurants. And with 50 new restaurants opening in 2014, the problem is daily becoming more acute.

"It does no good to post on Craigslist," sighs Jacques Larson, chef of The Obstinate Daughter, which had to delay its opening for three months because it couldn't assemble a full crew.

During one month of the hiring period, Larson didn't receive a single resume.

Determined to reach every prospective applicant, some of Larson's peers dangled promises of bonus plans and paid vacations on boards aimed at job seekers in Cleveland and New York City. Yet there's no evidence that line cooks are in a rush to relocate for positions paying $13 an hour.

"In general, people don't have to move to get hospitality jobs because there are jobs in virtually every community," said Bruce Grindy, the national Restaurant Association's chief economist.

Larson caught a break when McCrady's chef de cuisine, Daniel "Dano" Heinze, referred an intern to The Obstinate Daughter.

"That never happens," Larson said. "But I think Dano knew, you want to start cooking immediately, you should go see Jacques."

Restaurant owners and chefs fear those kind of cordial relationships, which have been a hallmark of Charleston's culinary culture, could be endangered by brutal competition for skilled help. When Brooks Reitz earlier this year opened Leon's Oyster Shop, he hired two chefs away from The Ordinary.

"We're going to start cannibalizing," predicted Steve Palmer, managing partner of The Indigo Road, the restaurant group behind Oak, Indaco and The Macintosh. "This certainly could create a dynamic where fur could potentially fly."

But hurt feelings are only one casualty of the chronic worker shortage. If the situation isn't remedied soon, industry insiders say, the city's dining scene and the respect it commands nationally are at risk of sputtering out.

The imbalance between restaurant jobs and people willing to take them isn't unique to Charleston. "It's the same story everywhere, wherever I go," said Maverick Southern Kitchens' executive chef Frank Lee. "They all say the same thing: 'Where are the cooks? Where are the servers?' The ones that are really hard to find are managers. They're scarcer than hen's teeth."

While there are a few cities that have been spared the restaurant talent drought - Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon recently told the San Francisco Chronicle that "there are too many people moving to Portland to be cooks" - the economic recovery has rendered restaurant work less attractive nationwide. With higher-paying, less-physically demanding opportunities available, industries including plumbing, landscaping, construction and food service are struggling to fill vacancies.

"I just don't think there's enough people who want to work in that type of restaurant," Lee says, referring to the exacting kitchens on which Charleston has built its reputation. "It's not just a job, it's a calling. It's like the army. It just goes on and on. Plus, you can work three, four, five years and still make $30,000 a year, unless you're salaried. It gets daunting when you want to raise a family or have a girlfriend."

As for the thousands of South Carolinians who remain out of work - the state unemployment rate is now 5.3 percent, the lowest figure reported since 2001 - many of them aren't suited for restaurant jobs.

"It's the mismatch hypothesis," explained Darrell West, vice president of the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. "People often do not have the interest or training needed for particular jobs so even during a period of high unemployment, employers have difficulty filling certain positions."

Until Johnson & Wales University closed its Charleston campus in 2006, local restaurants could count on drawing their hires from a large group of highly trained culinary school graduates. Since the closure, restaurants have raised wages to help compensate for the loss of a steady stream of enthusiastic young chefs.

"Charleston, for years, has really been kind of bad about paying its line cooks," said Larson, who offers a starting wage of $13-$15. "Three years ago, that was unheard of. But I couldn't look them in the eye and pay them 11 bucks."

Still, the pay hike doesn't address the training issue, which Charleston Grill general manager Mickey Bakst considers so severe that he recently launched a campaign to lure the Culinary Institute of America here.

"It was totally shot down," he said. "I had a talk with the (Culinary Institute of America's) president. He just point-blank said, 'Mickey, we have cities all over the world throwing money at us.'"

For example, the establishment of the school's San Antonio campus was largely underwritten by a $35 million individual gift. Nothing comparable has materialized in Charleston.

After Johnson & Wales' departure, responsibility for training the next wave of chefs fell to Trident Technical College.

Mayor Joe Riley in 2009 recruited The Art Institute to open a Charleston branch, but chefs say the private school's contributions to the restaurant workforce are negligible. Only 185 students are enrolled in the school's various culinary programs; 70 percent of those studying for an associate degree within 20 months.

By contrast, Trident Tech's Culinary Institute of Charleston has grown tenfold over the past decade, with 1,100 students now enrolled in the program. About 80 percent of them graduate, a rate that Dean Michael Saboe says is in line with community college standards.

According to Saboe, the Culinary Institute of Charleston has enhanced its curriculum with more specialized classes, such as artisan bread baking, but has mostly stuck to its American Culinary Foundation-accredited course of cooking fundamentals.

"I don't know that there's much quality difference (between Culinary Institute of Charleston and Johnson & Wales)," Saboe said. "We're proud of our quality. The difference comes down to tuition dollars."

With South Carolina lottery tuition assistance, the cost of a semester at the Culinary Institute of Charleston is $831. Students also are expected to spend $500 on a knife kit, although they can apply for hardship grants to cover the cost of equipment.

"The main thing is these are blue-collar people," says Saboe, explaining that most Culinary Institute of Charleston students would rather land a steady job with benefits than join the staff of a prestigious restaurant. Publix is an especially popular employer.

"I tell my advisory board, focus on finding people who have passion to work for Mike Lata (chef and managing partner of FIG and The Ordinary). These workers try to stay close to home."

Lee last year served as a guest instructor for three Culinary Institute of Charleston classes, each attended by a dozen or so students. "My real interest is to find people," he confessed. "They just looked at me and said, 'That's great. We have jobs.' They didn't need jobs."

In response to restaurateurs' concerns, the Culinary Institute of Charleston is working closely with area high schools and developing a system of "stackable credits," which allow students to quickly earn the school's endorsement in specific areas, such as sautéing or knife skills. "We want to get people out of the door with a certificate, back to what we did in the '80s," Saboe says.

But at this point, many employers say they're not holding out for paperwork.

"If you're just totally green and can't tell an apple from a chicken, you might not be in the $10-$12 range," said Lee, who's watched the time it takes to get promoted to the next kitchen station at SNOB shrink from one year to a few months. "But if you've worked at Outback Steakhouse, you're golden."

Larson has started looking for staffers dreaming of second careers. "I've had my best luck finding people outside of the box," Larson said. "A lot of my staff are people who were not even in the culinary field. They're miserable behind a desk, and they've seen one too many episodes of Top Chef. My hiring motto has always been 'you have a good work ethic, you're going to do fine.'"

The downside of hiring broadly is the time spent on training, noted Palmer, who concedes that having too many inexperienced cooks in the kitchen will inevitably result in a food quality decline. So instead of expending their energy on recruiting novices, restaurant owners are tacking more hours onto their current crew members' schedules. Overtime has become a central element of many restaurants' operations.

"The overtime hours last week were astronomical," said Larson, who estimates the average kitchen shift at The Obstinate Daughter runs 14-15 hours.

Paying overtime is costly for restaurants, but chefs say the toll on workers is potentially more significant. Kitchens are already hot, tense and populated with huge personalities and adding sleep deprivation to the mix can make for an unpleasant evening.

"A 70-, 80-, 90-hour workweek, it's doable," Larson said. "But the honeymoon period at The Obstinate Daughter is over. People get exhausted. I used to get off on long hours. But a big part of being a chef is being a cheerleader and motivating people, and when I come in, I can't see straight."

The normalization of long hours may play into some job seekers' reluctance to accept downtown restaurant jobs. Food-and-beverage professionals who have tried to relocate here worry about the tenor of the workplace cultures they've encountered and wonder whether their abilities are being appropriately valued. Despite local chefs' insistence that it's an employee's market, many food-and-beverage professionals report they've had trouble connecting with the right opportunities in Charleston.

"My experience was pretty awful," said Sarah Malphrus, who recently accepted a position as executive pastry chef of Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen after spending a few months trying to find a job in Charleston. "A lot of the problems I ran into dealt with being 'overqualified.' The work for a full-time pastry chef just wasn't there. And even if it was, the money wasn't."

For workers new to the restaurant field, there are also financial reasons to look for jobs beyond downtown. Since the high cost of housing means most hourly-wage earners live in the suburbs, the price and logistics of transportation are often determining factors in a prep cook's or steward's job search.

"One of the first things we ask people is 'Do you have transportation?'" Lee said.

The only bus that leaves downtown after 10 p.m. is the Route 10 to North Charleston, which at midnight offers a shortened version of its usual route.

"These kids get out, and there are no buses running, Bakst said, adding that a Charleston Grill employee who chooses to drive to a shift that starts before 3 p.m. can rack up $25 in parking charges a day.

Bakst said he believes restaurants aren't only missing out on a pool of workers who can't afford to live or park downtown. As someone who focuses on the front of the house, he's equally concerned about the racial makeup of restaurants' service staffs.

"Go to McCrady's, go to Cypress, go to SNOB: Tell me how many African-Americans you see serving," he said. "When I came here, there was not one black server in Charleston Grill. I literally went to black churches and said, 'I have jobs for your kids.' Nobody came. There's a history; the older generation did not want their kids to serve people."

Charleston County's African-American population numbers more than 100,000 people, a group Bakst hopes to reach through his Teach the Need program. The 2-year-old program - available to Title I high school students of all racial backgrounds - features a six-week restaurant skills curriculum. Offered in eight area schools, the initiative was designed to expose students to the dignity and income potential associated with service careers.

The program's placements thus far include five workers at Red Drum, and three workers at Hall's Chophouse.

"If we don't find new sources of employees, guests are going to start noticing," Bakst said. "Honestly, there's such a horrible need. I think we're in crisis."

Beyond strengthening the relationship between downtown restaurants and the Culinary Institute of Charleston, and cultivating new hires through Teach the Need, Bakst said he's stymied by the staffing problem.

"My guys can make a fortune, and I can't find skilled workers," he said, repeating a question he puts to job applicants: If an American pinot noir drinker wants a French wine, what's the right recommendation? "Bordeaux, they tell me. We're not getting skills." (The correct answer is Burgundy.)

In restaurants around town, short staffing and hurried training have lately conspired to create errors that make Bakst cringe.

"There is a crisis for quality service," he says. "Condé Nast, they said it: We didn't win an award because we were the most beautiful city. It was because our hospitality was through the roof."

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.

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