Young and Hungry

Underfed: Good Staff Is in Short Supply, and Restaurants Are Getting Desperate

Among local restaurateurs, there’s a sacred code: Don’t walk into another operator’s restaurant and try to steal the staff.

But these are desperate times. In recent months, poaching has become more frequent and more aggressive. Passion Food Hospitality co-owner Gus DiMillo says it’s become all too common to see managers of other restaurants come into his eateries, which include DC Coast, Acadiana, and District Commons, and offer his waiters and managers jobs. Competitors will also call chefs and other employees while they’re working and attempt to lure them away.

“That’s not cool at all,” DiMillo says. “I would never do something like that, and I think it’s inexcusable.”

Behind the cutthroat tactics is a situation that alarms management even more: The District doesn’t have enough experienced restaurant staffers. With unemployment in D.C. at 8.5 percent, there are plenty of applicants for job openings, but veteran servers, managers, and cooks are in short supply. That’s been true for a while, but as dozens of new restaurants have opened in recent months, restaurateurs say the labor market is the tightest they’ve ever seen. Things are particularly bad for independent upscale dining establishments that turn out complicated menus with the expectation of a high level of service, but even casual spots are having a tough time filling openings. The results for the diner, if restaurants don’t step up their training? Amateur service and cooking.

Chef and restaurateur Jeff Tunks, DiMillo’s business partner, says finding staff for Passion Food Hospitality is the hardest part of his job right now. Just take a look at Craigslist to see the demand across the region: There are often more than 100 new hospitality job postings each day.

Tunks says he’s been forced to close sections of the dining room at Clarendon’s Fuego Cocina y Tequileria on certain days because he didn’t have enough servers trained. The lack of staff is also why Foggy Bottom’s District Commons never opened for breakfast as it initially intended to do.

“We’re sort of handcuffed a little bit,” Tunks says. “You never want to turn away business, but you also have to make sure that they’re getting good service. You just can’t open the floodgates.” That can translate to lost revenue for the restaurant.

Tunks says he’s had servers leave for a hot new restaurant to take advantage of the swarm of diners, then return several weeks later to ask for their jobs back. “We don’t have the luxury to say, ‘Hey, you’ve made your bed, go lay in it,’” Tunks says. If they’re good, he’ll hire them back.

Meanwhile, Black Restaurant Group owner Jeff Black says the shortage has meant he’s had to pay existing staff more for overtime. Not only is that bad for the bottom line, Black says, but “you’re paying someone who’s tired to work extra.” He’s had days where he’s so short-staffed that managers have to wait tables, and sometimes he now gives servers extra money to come in during less desirable shifts.

Tunks says that about a month ago, he began offering a $500 bounty to anyone who referred a manager his group ended up hiring. Meanwhile, several restaurateurs say they’ve started advertising mid- to top-level positions in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston in order to attract the right resumes. Many others have started to use headhunters, who typically charge a one-time fee of about 10 percent of the employee’s starting salary.

“My phone doesn’t stop ringing,” says one local restaurant headhunter, Chris Floyd, whose recruiting agency Capital Restaurant Resources works with Think Food Group, Passion Food Hospitality, Matchbox Food Group, Kimpton Hotel Group, and others. “We don’t spend time anymore trying to find new clients.”

This is all great news for job seekers. “It really is an employee’s market,” says Floyd. He says it’s not uncommon for a great sous chef or an assistant manager—two of the most in-demand positions—to have seven to 10 offers. (Salaries for such positions typically range from $40,000 to $50,000.) Less experienced people can also advance more easily now. Floyd says most restaurants prefer sous chefs or assistant managers to have at least two to four years experience. Now they’re settling for people with as little as six months.

It’s also getting easier for servers to get hired. “It’s pretty simple,” says Daikaya server Holly Barzyk, who’s also worked at Minibar and Rogue 24. “I’ve known people that have never worked in a restaurant before and were getting jobs at really good restaurants. The sad thing is: Are these people getting trained properly?”

Daikaya general manager James Horn was in charge of front-of-house staffing at the new Japanese spot in Chinatown and oversaw employees at Graffiato and Bandolero before that. He says the “classic way” to hire when you open a restaurant is to overstaff, with the expectation that half of your employees will turn over within three months. But at Daikaya, he tried a different approach. “We took so long in our interview process. We were very picky about it, and it was very tough.” Horn says. “It was scary, because you run so lean, and you risk not having someone on the floor.”

But Black says that you sometimes can’t afford to hesitate on a hire: “If he’s a dog, if he’s a piece of crap, if he’s a child molester, whatever, we’ll figure it out and we’ll get rid of him the first week. We need bodies. We need people that want to wait on tables.”

So, what does this mean for diners?

Restaurateurs are (unsurprisingly) reluctant to say that their service or food quality suffers as a result of the short supply of skilled waiters or cooks. Instead, they argue they make up for the lack of experience with more training. But that’s not to say they don’t notice problems at other establishments as a result of the staffing shortage.

Undisputed is the fact that restaurants are hiring younger and greener people based more on attitude and personality than resume. “In order to hire and do well right now, you need to give people a chance a lot more than you used to,” says Horn. “You spent some time at a summer camp interacting with people? You worked at Abercrombie selling clothes? And you were a cashier at a Subway?” Hired.

At the same time, diners now expect more from servers. It’s not enough just to take orders; the staff has to know how a dish is made. Is the pork local? Is there dairy in it? And what wine will pair best?

Taylor Gourmet co-owner Casey Patten says the hoagie shop started feeling the labor pinch about eight months ago while searching for good cooks and assistant managers. It ended up hiring David Hahn, previously a top gun in the training department of Chipotle’s corporate office, to step up training that would allow Taylor to promote more people from within rather than from a pile of Craigslist applicants. Now, a cashier goes through five days of training, up from two. And whereas ongoing training used to slow down the longer an employee stayed on, now it just continues, Patten says.

High-end spots have it hardest of all. Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck owner Robert Wiedmaier says that as dining as a whole has gotten more casual, there are fewer fine-dining training grounds. That not only means fewer servers who know which wine pairs with a grilled piece of foie gras, but also fewer cooks who know how to make a boudin or saucisson. Wiedmaier says his line cooks used to be in their 30s or 40s. These days, they’re 18 to 24. “Now, it’s just young kids, and they’ve got major dues to pay,” he says.

Wiedmaier says he’s had to adjust his menus to match his kitchen staff’s capabilities. “If you know that you’ve got a very inexperienced staff, that means you put on dishes that could still be great dishes, but maybe not as complicated,” he says. “You might not put a bone marrow flan on, because it’s got to be just perfectly delicate.”

Wiedmaier says his style of managing the kitchen staff has totally changed as well. These days, you can’t pull a Gordon Ramsey if you want to keep people on board. “It used to be that I’d walk into the kitchen, snap my apron, and let’s rock and roll. I would yell and scream all night,” Wiedmaier says. “And I’d have 10 cooks banging at the back door wanting a job.”

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Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • elements food and spirit

    Such a desperate attempt. Only cowards do this.

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  • Beerbrarian

    How many restaurants in DC keep Hispanic staff in the back of the house, or as busboys, never promoting them? I was at Moto in Chicago last Fri, a 3 star restaurant. Our waiter is Hispanic. At a 3 star restaurant in DC that would never happen. Never. The talent is there, DC restaurateurs, but you'd never know it. It's frustrating and it's wrong.

  • Commentz

    Being a server or line cook is not that difficult. The DC restaurant industry needs to get over itself.

  • Don Rockwell

    Of course, those $40,000-50,000 salaries for sous chefs and AGMs - positions where people regularly work brutal, 60 or 70 hour weeks (despite being assured otherwise upon hiring) haven't budged much. One of the biggest lies in the industry: "We're going to get you some help real soon!" That usually keeps people limping along for a few more months.

  • No Free Lunch

    One area that is over-saturated is bartending. Somewhere along the line the myth has been perpetuated that anyone can be a bartender, and the younger people that used to fill the server jobs think they can skip paying their dues and go straight to bartending and making 4 times the money. Sadly, there are some disgraceful bartenders in this town that put the profession to shame, and the operators make it worse by hiring every attractive female that walks through the door instead of screening for ability and experience. The restaurant operators are the ones making it hard on themselves.

  • No Free Lunch

    And Don Rockwell is right, every misleading ad on CL proclaims "quality of life, 5 day 50 hour work week", and many managers are making $42k/yr to work 6 day 70 hour weeks. That translates to about $11.50/hr, about what an hourly shift supervisor at Starbucks makes.

  • David Smelson

    The restaurant industry is no different than any other when it comes to employee retention.
    Build your talent brand and make your company THE place to work.
    Respect your employees. Offer reasonable hours, promote from within, have fun, be a respectable business person and treat everyone as you'd want to be treated. Your employees are the ones who are facing the guests and will have the ultimate control of your guests' experience. Empower them and make them want your business to be successful because they like and respect the business and the owner.
    If you're doing that, you don't have to worry about turn-over and poaching.

  • Jeni

    If the top restaurants are having trouble...well, this helps to explain why too many casual spots have lackadaisical staff and mediocre, overpriced meals.

  • Alan

    The guy at the end is mad because he can't act like a huge jerk any more? I'm having trouble sympathizing.

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  • Kate

    Beerbrarian, you make a really good point. Jessica, could you dig a little deeper and ask questions about the racism of the restaurant industry? Have any of these managers looked into local jobs training programs like the one at Inspire BBQ on H Street? Yeah yeah yeah, minorities just have no work ethic, especially in our beloved chocolate city, amiright folks?

  • adelphy_ski

    I noticed that Prince George's County Community College's hospitality program wasn't mentioned. It was created when the Gaylord, a partner, was completed. What are these restaurants doing to foster more hospitality programs with the many universities in the area? Al you would need is a 2 year associates degree.

  • tntdc

    Seems this would have been a good article to include info on DC's new Hospitality High School in Shaw.

  • eponymous

    Beerbrarian, I think that's still true some places. But I'm seeing more and more diversity in the FOH staff at places where I eat.

  • eponymous

    Also yeah - it can be hard to sympathize with these guys. You pay these people what? $3 an hour? And it's a hard job - people who haven't done it really don't get it.

  • George

    Not sure what/where some of the comments are coming from

    No one in DC pays people $3 per hour OR managers $42K

    Most DC restaurant managers earn $67K or so and line cooks get $13/hour with basic skills

    It is what it is - DC is extremely expensive area to live which is why you have this problem.

  • skipper

    George- most waiters in DC make less than $3/hour from their employer, relying solely on tips. Little or terrible healthcare, no paid time off, long one wants to stay in the restaurant industry anymore because it just isn't worth the stress, uncertainty, and abuse from diners and management alike.
    If these restaurants want to keep professional staff, then maybe they should start treating their employees in a professional manner.

  • Bac

    The restaurant 'industry' has not changed in about 25 years, if not more. It's always been stressful, uncertain and abusive.

    The way I see the problem is this - there are many many overpriced restaurants that have, unfortunately, trained their wait staff to hover, hover, hover, until the very moment they think the customer is done ordering food ($), then they abandon you to go hover over other customers to get them to keep ordering. The food, overall, in Washington is mediocre and there ain't a lot of it. And, it's overpriced.

    A really quality restaurant would not train their wait staff like that. It makes for one of the worst kinds of dining 'experiences.' As do the hard surfaces and loud music. It's all meant to disorient you and distract you from the not so great food, horrible service, and bad prices.

    DC is just not the place to eat good food. Unless you cook it yourself.

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  • jeni

    @Bac, my learning to become a decent home cook was partly in response to too many substandard dining (and takeout) experiences in the DC area. Trendy restaurants where you can't hear the person you're talking to, and $$$ for esoteric but improperly prepped meals were big factors.

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  • Abigail

    I think good staff is really helpful to restaurant anf make your restaurant famous in your area.....

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