June 10, 2013
June 17, 2013

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. It’s become all too common to see managers of other restaurants come into eateries, and offer waiters and managers jobs. Competitors will also call chefs and other employees while they’re working and attempt to lure them away.

Behind the cutthroat tactics is a situation that alarms management even more – the District of Columbia 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.

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.

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.

Some 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. If they’re good, they hire them back.

Some say the shortage has meant they have to pay existing staff more for overtime. Not only is that bad for the bottom line, the restaurants are paying someone who’s tired to work extra.Some have days where they’re so short-staffed that managers have to wait tables, and sometimes gives servers extra money to come in during less desirable shifts.

This is all great news for job seekers. It really is an employee’s market. 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. 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. There are people that have never worked in a restaurant before and are getting jobs at really good restaurants. The sad thing is: Are these people getting trained properly?

 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 sometimes a person can’t afford to hesitate on a hire. Restaurants 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.

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?

To step up training that would promote more people from within rather than from a pile of Craigslist applicants, 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.

High-end spots have it hardest of all.  As dining as a whole has gotten more casual, there are fewer fine-dining training grounds. 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. 

Source:, 6.5.2013

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