November 2017

The National Shortage of Qualified Cooks

national restaurant cook shortage
courtesy Tulalip Resort Casino

Over the past 6 or 7 years the restaurant industry has been expressing growing alarm over the inability to find, hire and keep qualified cooks. It’s now an accepted fact that we have a national restaurant cook shortage. Dozens of articles from cities across the country have discussed the cook crisis and its impact upon chefs and restaurants. Some are saying that the national restaurant cook crisis may actually be a good thing because it may force our industry to evolve and work through the growing pains of paying better wages to professional cooks. Others suggest that the “golden age” of casual-up scale restaurants is on life support and the rules of economics are about to pull the plug. The purpose of this article is to present some possible solutions and start a conversation (so please post suggestions/comments!)

The primary culprit for the cook shortage is the low wages which cooks earn combined with an ever expanding selection of newly opened restaurants (more jobs but fewer cooks). According to salary.com, as of October 2017 the median annual Line Cook salary is $23,660, with a range usually between $20,250 – $28,894 ($9.74 – $13.89/hr). And the median annual Fine Dining Cook – Casino salary is $33,411, with a range usually between $30,593 – $36,594 ($14.71 – $17.59/hr).

Most culinary students graduate with strapping student loan debt and will enter the restaurant work force at just a moderate rate of pay. And veteran professional cooks with valuable skills hit a glass wage ceiling somewhere around the range of $14 – $18 per hour. Meanwhile, in many restaurants the servers may make up to twice as much once tips are figured into their wage. The result is that cooks are leaving the kitchen for either a server position, or leaving the industry completely, not because they don’t like cooking but because financially they can’t keep doing it.

And as much as restaurateurs and chefs understand this and want to pay their staff a livable wage, the reality is that a restaurant’s profit margin is very slim, usually in the 4% – 8% range. And passing the cost of increased wages on to the customer could result in the loss of business (after all, how much are you willing to pay for a good hamburger or steak?) So they need to find a way to increase wages without going bankrupt and without passing too much of that cost on to the guests.

A secondary culprit for the restaurant cook shortage is the disconnect between today’s millennials, the “old guard” culture of the kitchen where a cook’s only response should be “yes chef!” and the misrepresentation of both the glamor and the pain which is sold to us by The Food Network etc all.

Many of today’s young cooks think that they know much more than they actually do and therefore think they are equal to more experienced cooks and chefs. They don’t realize that becoming an excellent cook with a refined palate requires time, repetition, experience. And that becoming a Chef requires much more than simply being able to cook well or create a recipe. They want instant gratification, instant success, instant recognition, and are less willing to put in the time that it requires to be genuinely skilled at cooking.

The result is that many millennials will bounce from kitchen to kitchen and many are leaving the industry completely.
And on the other hand, the seasoned cooks and chefs of the older generation expect the newbies to just get in line, earn their dues, and work because that is what is expected of them…no questions asked. In a nut shell, the older generation needs to soften up a bit (without lowering standards) and learn to become mentors rather than “the boss”, and the younger generation needs to toughen up a bit and be more patient. But that’s the topic of a separate discussion.

Possible Solutions to the Restaurant Cook Shortage

Simplifying Menus for Various Reasons

A growing number of restaurants and well known chefs are choosing to simply menus, especially at new concepts which they are opening.

Unskilled Cooks

Some chefs are resorting to simplifying their menus because the only available applicants lack the skills to produce the quality they demand. Chef Hooni Kim, who owns Danji and Hanjan in Manhattan, has said “I have given up expecting all of my line cooks to be able to season correctly” so he prepares some of his menu in advance so that his staff just needs to heat and serve.

To Decrease Kitchen Staff Needed

Some chefs are making their menus shorter or less creative in order to accommodate the shortage of staff they need for a more extensive menu. There are 2 ideas on this strategy. The first is that a smaller menu can be managed with fewer cooks. The other is that with fewer cooks on the payroll it may be possible to pay higher wages to the remaining cooks.

For more than a year, Chef Karen Akunowicz, a Top Chef veteran and James Beard Award nominee, and her boss, James Beard Award–winning star Chef Joanne Chang, had been short-staffed, resigned to having just enough hands to keep the kitchen running. Many of Chang’s latest hires were inexperienced compared with even a few years ago, so she’d taken to streamlining her menus, replacing half a dozen varieties of steamed bao buns, for instance, with only two “because we simply don’t have the staff to make the six or so we originally offered.” – bostonmagazine

Replace Tipping with a Service Charge

86ing tipping and implementing a service charge system is a growing trend which has proved itself to be successful in mid to upper-end restaurants across the country. Their menus state that tipping is not required and that an 18% or 20% service charge is added to the bill instead. The service charge is then split between front of the house and back of the house personnel, effectively giving the cooks (and often the dishwashers) a significant raise allowing them to earn on par with what the servers earn.

This is a legal work around for that incomprehensibly stupid law which states that cooks are not part of the customer service chain because they don’t deal with the guest face to face. (I’ll have to tell the IRS the next time they come in and ask for a special request off the menu, have a dietary or allergy request, or want a steak cooked rare medium-rare, that I’m not in the customer service industry, don’t get tips, and they will get whatever the menu states with no variation…ok, done venting.)

  • Chefs Thomas Keller, Dominique Crenn, and Grant Achatz have chosen this path
  • Many Seattle restaurants have also chosen this path due to “$15 Now” legislation
  • This may piss the servers off…but the industry is hurting in part because servers earn massively more money than the cooks who prepare the food
  • This solution may not be appropriate in states or restaurants which follow the federal minimum tip credit wage where servers may be paid as little as $2.13/hour plus tips. But it may make sense in states like Washington where the minimum wage for servers is soon to be $11.00/hour plus tips.

Replace Tipping with Higher Menu Prices

In Seattle, the “$15 Now” initiative has resulted in Ivar’s Seafood eliminating tips and replacing them with a 21% menu price increase which is used to balance the wages of all the staff. “We saw there was a fundamental inequity in our restaurants where the people who worked in the kitchen were paid about half as much as the people who worked with customers in front of the house,” president and co-owner Bob Donegan said.

Eliminating Waitstaff

Eliminating waitstaff, implementing a service charge system, having the kitchen staff interact with the guests, and paying them more via the service charge. Chef Dominique Crenn and Chef Blaine Wetzel of the Willows Inn have gone down this road.

This solution to the restaurant cook shortage problem raises cook’s wages by eliminating the waitstaff, charging a flat 18% – 20% service fee, and having the cooks learn to interact professionally with the guests. Who better to describe the nuances of technique and ingredients than the cooks who are preparing the meal? And since many cooks are either tattooed or gruff looking, perhaps the verbal abuse which some socially bankrupt customers like to display to “normal” servers will be dialed down. The industry has too long tolerated verbally abusive customers (pathetic human beings) who demean & insult servers who feel obligated to take abuse both for company and tip. I’m not advocating a “knuckle sandwich” for assholes from a cook…but you really don’t want to piss off someone who works with fire, knives, ego, and intense adrenaline, especially if they are also the ones preparing your food…just sayin.

Adding a Hospitality Administrative Fee

In December 2015 Boston restaurants Tres Gatos, Centre Street Cafe, and Casa Verde implemented a 3% pre-tax “hospitality administrative fee” to every guest check which is then divided up among the cooks & dishwashers. This seems like too little too late, but it is a small step in the right direction. Personally I think it would need to be at least a 5% fee, but explaining it to your guests will be a challenge either way.

“Buy the Kitchen a Beer” Menu Item

Adding a menu item to the actual menu which reads something like, “Buy the Kitchen a Beer…$5” or “Send Gratitude to the Kitchen…$5” and then distribute these funds to the kitchen crew.

Becoming More Competitive with Cook’s Wages

In response to decreased cook applications, in January 2017 the Tulalip Resort gave all their cooks (about 200 of them) a “wage adjustment.” After doing regional analysis of cook’s wages they determined that they were no longer one of the most competitive companies to work for when it came to cook’s wages. So they adjusted wages to put them back in the top tier of employers paying high wages to cooks. It was not considered a raise, but rather a “competitive wage adjustment” and it was explained this way to all employees.



 

Host or Participate in Job Fairs

Tulalip Resort Casino has been finding success at getting new hires for all positions by hosting job fairs in one of their ballrooms (although cook applicants are still fewer than other applicants). The job fairs are more successful when they are promoted locally, offer immediate interviews, and have an expedited hiring process.

Another Perspective on Tips

Another reason that the huge disparity between cook’s wages and server’s wages has grown to such a chasm is and unexpected benefit which servers receive but which cooks don’t. Every time menu prices are raised it is essentially a raise for the servers because higher prices means more tips. If cook and server wages were about the same 20 years (ie less inequity) and both positions received an annual base salary wage increase, but servers also received the benefit of annual menu price increases, then they would have 20 “pay raises” which have resulted in the chasm we now see between cook and server earnings. It’s an unforeseen consequence of the tipping system which is now having a significant impact on the shortage of cooks nationwide.

Other Ideas about the Restaurant Cook Shortage??

I would love to hear comments/suggestions/feedback from other Chefs and restaurateurs! Debate and disagreements are welcome but you must be professional, state your argument in a convincing manner, and not insult those who disagree with you.

 

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