US restaurants tackle manpower shortage creatively

WASHINGTON • The owner of Taco Bamba Taqueria peered out from the kitchen at the line of customers snaking around the corner at his latest spot in a suburban mall, and felt terror.

Who was going to cook, serve and clean up for all these people? The cooks had left, overwhelmed by the crowds, said Mr Victor Albisu, who owns four Taco Bambas.

"The wait staff had left. The chef and sous-chef had walked out."

A tight labour market and an explosion of new restaurants have made finding and keeping help harder across the United States.

Last year, the National Restaurant Association said 37 per cent of its members said labour recruitment was their top challenge, up from 15 per cent two years ago.

With low profit margins leaving little room to increase wages, restaurant owners are cooking up other ways to fill their manpower needs.

They are offering incentives, such as repaying culinary-school tuition for their chefs. They are hiring former prisoners as kitchen assistants.

They are trying to retain staff with tequila-tasting seminars, flexible schedules and faster promotions.

The growth in dining out is clear. The US added 15,145 restaurants, just between the third quarters of 2016 and 2017.

The demand for highly skilled help is especially acute in Washington, where a boom in restaurants run by creative chefs is outstripping the region's labour force. Restaurant guide Zagat named Washington, once considered a second-tier city in the culinary world, as the nation's hottest food city in 2016.

Established players from around the country have moved in, such as chef David Chang of New York-based Momofuku group and Danny Meyer, a New York restaurant mogul, who is on his way with an outpost of Union Square Cafe.

A recent crackdown on unauthorised workers has sent a further chill through the business.

Dishwashers and other low-wage restaurant staff have long been recruited from an immigrant workforce, but many restaurateurs are wary now of tapping that pool.

The labour shortage has at times altered the nature of restaurants and quality of service.

"In some cases I believe it has changed the direction certain restaurants had originally planned on," said Mr Albisu. "There is less polish." Many diners complain about restaurants where the food is expensive but the service is lacking.

The more experienced workers are attracted to the increasing number of Washington restaurants with high-profile chefs, leaving mid-level eateries struggling with inexperienced and often fickle help.

Chefs and restaurant owners are now forced to cast a wider recruitment net. Taco Bell and McDonald's have said that they would expand programmes to help employees pay for college tuition.

Chris Coombs, chef and owner of restaurant group Boston Urban Hospitality, has offered to repay culinary-school loans. "One consistent theme of our cooks is that they all had student loan debt," he said.

"It was one of many tactics."

Mr Michael Schlow, who owns restaurants around the country, offers his team educational workshops on wine and spirits, and recently took two chefs on a trip to Italy to study cooking techniques.

"We don't win them over with a pay cheque," he said.

"Pay is important, but of more importance is respect and admiration and learning. If people feel like they are learning, they are more apt to stay."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2018, with the headline 'US restaurants tackle manpower shortage creatively'. Print Edition | Subscribe