On a recent Wednesday, Matt Sanders posted a “looking for work” notice on Chucktown F&B Collective, a closed Facebook group where nearly 12,000 local food and beverage industry workers share complaints, warn of bad customers who skip out on their tabs and constantly advertise job openings.
It’s rare that a “chef person,” as Sanders referred to himself, posts a job query. Bartenders and servers are more likely to be looking for shifts, and when they do, they quickly get a list of openings.
The day after his post, Sanders had more than two dozen private messages from potential employers.
“I was overwhelmed by the response,” he says. “And then I got 10 to 15 more after I had already responded and made some commitments.”
As Sanders' experience illustrates, cooks are in short supply in Charleston, along with dishwashers, waiters and the rest of the people it takes to deliver a good dining experience. One restaurateur says finding help is worse during the spring season but improves once summer hits and college students return home looking for work.
One restaurant group reached out to Sanders in its search to staff a new location. In another instance, he met with a chef who runs his own small restaurant on James Island and just needed help so he could get a break.
Sanders also had some great conversations with Kris Kincaid, who runs Locklear’s on Little Oak. Kincaid hoped Sanders might be the answer to his prayers.
Last summer, Kincaid bought Cafe Fork on S.C. Highway 61 from a friend who was unable to run it any longer. He closed it down, took that staff with him out to his Folly Road restaurant and renovated the West Ashley space, adding a bar and applying for a liquor license. Trouble is, he's been unable to find enough people to staff it since, and he's currently paying rent, insurance and more to keep it going.
"I think I have enough staff to open it for lunch, Monday through Friday," says Kincaid, who thought Sanders was a good fit. "I checked his references and he seemed like a no-nonsense guy who would be a good employee."
In the midst of meeting with Kincaid and fielding messages from others, Sanders got a call from Brian Parkhurst, an old friend he’d worked with at Peninsula Grill. Parkhurst, the former executive chef at Fulton Five, is now at The Obstinate Daughter, where he's in charge of making the pasta. Parkhurst suggested he meet with executive chef Jacques Larson, another Peninsula Grill alum.
“(Parkhurst) was surprised I didn’t call him,” says Sanders, who still kept his previously scheduled interviews and was intrigued with the opportunity to work with Kincaid and run his own kitchen. But ultimately, The Obstinate Daughter got his attention because it fit with his goal of getting back into a kitchen where he could learn.
Sanders has decades of experience in the back of the house, but he stopped working as a cook around 2008 and started working as a general manager, running several restaurants on James Island. “I was working high-end until the last couple of years. I live on James Island, and I love James Island, but the restaurants are not like downtown. The restaurant owners want the money of downtown, but it’s a totally different egg.”
As a general manager, he has dealt with the labor shortage in the food and beverage industry from the employer's perspective.
“These guys are holding you hostage,” he says. “You can’t find any good help.” He thinks it’s worse for the front-of-house managers who deal with servers and bartenders, because in the kitchen he sees more opportunity to inspire young cooks through food, but the kitchens struggle, too.
"Everyone is so worried about finding the next person for $12.50 an hour, but nobody's training them," which means that they move from kitchen to kitchen without the basic skills necessary to do good work, at least in Sanders' opinion.
Trying to run restaurants using poorly trained help burned him out. He was tired of babysitting workers who had no passion for the industry, he says. "I'm 47 and I feel, at my age, if I can run circles around you and you're half my age, then there's a problem."
He thought about his next career move and realized that he wanted to get back in the kitchen and hone his cooking skills. "I spent four months trying to decide what I was going to do, and I kept cooking (at home) the whole time and realized how much I loved it," says Sanders.
He posted on Facebook just to see what the options were and decided a job as prep cook at The Obstinate Daughter made the most sense. "I'm going backward in pay," he says. "But I'm going forward in life."
Always be hiring
The hospitality industry has been talking about a shortage of workers ever since Johnson & Wales University moved its culinary school from Charleston to Charlotte in 2006. Jacques Larson, executive chef of The Obstinate Daughter and Wild Olive, remembers a different time, back in the late '90s. If you complained to the chef, he'd say, "You don't like it? I got a stack of resumes back there on my desk. Do it, or I'll find somebody else to do it."
Larson also remembers a high-powered meeting that had Charleston restaurateurs and chefs pleading with Johnson & Wales to stay in Charleston.
"We just don't have the workforce to support all this," says Larson. "We're having circular conversations now. Ten years ago people were saying, 'I can't believe there are more restaurants opening.'"
But restaurants have continued to open unabated, and the labor pool has continued to tighten. The current unemployment rate in the Charleston area is 3.9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the space of an afternoon on Chucktown F&B Collective, you can see Noisy Oyster Seafood Restaurant looking for a kitchen manager, alongside Larson's Wild Olive offering “great pay, free parking, health insurance, two weeks paid vacation, 401K, and most importantly, positive work environment.”
"It's become a joke," says Kincaid. "Somebody posts looking for a job, and you get 50 responses. Now, everyone's just telling people to walk into any business and they'll be hiring."
On another Facebook page called Charleston Food and Beverage Employment, a steady stream of pleas for “great cooks” flows by on a daily basis. Some employers go so far as to advertise their frustration in finding help: "Does anyone really not need a job in Mount Pleasant???”
Larson says looking for staff is a full-time job in itself. He teaches a class at Trident Tech's Culinary Institute of Charleston as a way to recruit young cooks. "I got two cooks from doing that," he says. He also tells his staff to keep an ear out for people looking for jobs.
But Larson has it better than most. At The Obstinate Daughter, which is open every day for lunch and dinner with no closing time in between, he needs about 37 staffers to run the back of the house, including dishwashers. Right now, he'd like to have two more cooks in the kitchen. "This has been a good week," he says. "We hired (Sanders), we hired a dishwasher, and we have another cook coming back after two weeks somewhere else."
That last cook had moved over to take an executive chef at a large and busy restaurant on Daniel Island, but it was more than the young father bargained for in terms of time so he came back. "You can move on and take a 25 percent pay raise, but that's also another 20 hours a week," says Larson, who is also looking for three cooks at Wild Olive.
Even though Larson feels the stress of hiring and keeping good people, his kitchen has more talent than most. In addition to Parkhurst, the crew includes a new graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. (although he's about to move to California after one year at the restaurant) and a former executive chef from Las Vegas.
"We have so many people here who have been sous chefs, executive chefs, chef de cuisines," Larson says. And yet, they work as line cooks at The Obstinate Daughter. What gives?
For one, Larson says he's taken a more progressive attitude when it comes to the importance of time off and a pleasant work environment.
"For a long time, I subscribed to the idea that I get you to work as hard as possible for as little money as possible," he admits. "But you really have to put a premium on quality of life. If you don't have two days off back-to-back, chances are when you show up to work you're gonna be not so happy. You'll feel overworked and resentful."
His restaurants are also part of a larger company, which encompasses four Frankie's Fun Parks, with a fifth opening soon in Charlotte. "This is a company with a long history of success," says Larson. "We have infrastructure too, with accountants and HR people."
He's able to offer benefits that were once unheard-of in the industry: Two weeks paid vacation; health insurance and a 401K with a 6 percent match by the company. "We have parking too," Larson adds. Parking is no small potatoes as it can add hundreds of dollars per month to an employee's expenses, making a $12-$13 hourly wage untenable. Kincaid says he pays between $13.50 and $16 bucks an hour for cooks and $10-$12 for a dishwasher and has free parking, but still can't find workers.
For Sanders, who weighed his options carefully, The Obstinate Daughter proved the best opportunity available. "There are something like 37 chefs in that restaurant and they're all full-time and really happy, which is an anomaly," says Sanders. "With the benefits and the sheer happiness, Obstinate Daughter won out huge." Plus he'll get to work with his old friend Parkhurst and learn how to make fresh pasta from an expert.
Add in the level of food they're cooking and the parking, it was an offer Sanders couldn't refuse. And perhaps a lesson for others out there struggling to staff their kitchens.