Staff attraction and retention is the No. 1 issue in the restaurant industry, and 25 to 33 percent of Michigan restaurants currently have open positions, according to the Michigan Restaurant Association. Photo by Michael Buck
In the first week after the opening of Vander Mill’s Grand Rapids restaurant, Justin Large fired two cooks and saw two more quit.
Losing four people is hard enough for an already small kitchen staff, which Large, the executive chef, is still trying to fill out. The issue, however, is not unique to Vander Mill or Grand Rapids.
Large relocated last fall from Chicago, where he was culinary director with One Off Hospitality and had encountered the same problem of finding quality restaurant employees.
“It’s a confluence of a lot of things,” Large said. “There’s a huge demand with a lot of restaurants in an already strained labor market.”
As many industries across the country are feeling the effects of low unemployment rates, restaurants have named staff attraction and retention the No. 1 issue in the industry, according to National Restaurant Association surveys.
The $783 billion industry employs 14.4 million people in this country and has added more than 300,000 jobs each year for five straight years.
The need for more restaurant workers is driven by an improving economy, which means more people are earning disposable income and eating out more often.
Evolving consumer behavior is also at the heart of the issue; restaurants sales have grown from $42.8 billion in 1970 to $800 billion currently. In 1955, restaurants made up 25 percent of food industry spending; today, the share is nearly 50 percent, meaning more people are choosing to eat out.
Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant Association, said between 25 percent and 33 percent of restaurants currently have open positions.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Winslow said. “The labor market improving is good news for the economy. We all remember the state’s recession lasting nearly the entire first decade of the century, and we didn’t have these concerns. So it’s a bit newer for us than the rest of the country, and it’s a good sign the labor market has tightened up, but there are definitely some challenges.”
Winslow said the tight labor market doesn’t impact the front of the house as much as the kitchen — the “heart of the restaurant.”
He said the recent addition of new restaurants, a shallow talent pool and a lack of quality training is a troubling combination.
Large agreed and called the situation “frustrating.”
“I see more and more cooks who are either undertrained or lack experience but have a vision of themselves that’s not accurate to what they can accomplish,” Large said.
“The celebrity that surrounds food from the past 10 to 15 years has done a lot of wonderful things but also some not so wonderful things. It looks fun and glamorous. That’s all fine and good, but it doesn’t happen overnight.”
The lack of awareness doesn’t only apply to millennials, said Large, who added he’s seen people of all ages expect to become a sous chef right out of culinary school. Large brought Greg Bastien, a trusted colleague from Chicago who also wanted to relocate to West Michigan, to be his sous chef.
Large said in 2001, he was a member of one of the last classes at the Culinary Institute of America in which the curriculum focused on food. Since then, he said, the CIA, like many culinary schools, has focused more on how to run a business.
The new CIA curriculum, he said, eliminated classes on charcuterie, which has become one of the hottest food trends in the country the past several years.
“They’re making a judgment call that it’s not the direction the industry is headed,” Large said. “They want to get as many people out as quickly as possible — many undertrained and not with a great skill set or realistic concept.”
Winslow said the Michigan Restaurant Association is a big supporter of two-year culinary arts programs at vocational and technical centers. He said those programs help 5,000 students graduate from high school and, in two years, be ready to start a career.
Jeff Lobdell, president of Restaurant Partners Inc., said more should be done to show the restaurant industry can provide a more lucrative career than many college degree-based careers.
“Today, many high school grads go off to college and accumulate tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and then struggle to find a job,” he said.
“In our industry, after graduating high school, you could virtually get a real-world degree and five years later be free of debt and be earning a wage and benefits package in excess of $50,000 to $60,000 as a general manager of a successful restaurant.
“A few years (after that), you could become a multi-unit manager and be earning 130 percent of what a general manager does.”
The demand for skilled restaurant staff is only going to increase in Grand Rapids, with dozens of restaurants slated to open in the next year.
The industry as a whole has a turnover rate of more than 70 percent. That’s in part because many use it as a second income source to help pay for college or seasonal spending.
The key to keeping good employees goes well beyond the paycheck, said Lobdell, who oversees 600 employees at 16 restaurants, including Beltline Bar and The Omlette Shoppe locations. Flexible scheduling, workplace culture and career advancement play important roles, too.
He said 400 employees have been with Restaurant Partners for more than a year, 200 for more than five years, and 100 for more than 10 years.
Much of Lobdell’s turnover is seasonal workers, and that is expected, he said. He credits the Pure Michigan and Experience Grand Rapids tourism campaigns with helping grow the state as a culinary destination, but now the state might need to help attract seasonal hospitality workers in much the same fashion as cities like Vail, Colorado, and Park City, Utah.
“We have to create a supply that meets the demand,” Lobdell said.
Grand Rapids does have a growing, impressive culinary scene for its size, Large said, but while it is fairly cosmopolitan, he said it still has people who look at a “fancier” menu and just want a hamburger.
As the city continues to develop and gain a reputation as a culinary hotspot, more people will want to relocate to West Michigan, he said.
“There’s a big lag in customer demand and, hopefully, that works for scarcity,” Large said. “Hopefully, the demand for high quality won’t outpace the level of talent and they’ll pace each other in step.”