Calling All Cooks

Walk into any Austin restaurant from Torchy’s Tacos to Jeffrey’s and you’ll most likely find that it’s understaffed. In early March 2018, Poached Jobs, a website that posts jobs in the food and drink industry, listed 689 open positions locally, and the Food, Beverage and Hospitality section of Austin’s Craigslist had more than 2,000 posts. We took a quick survey of some of Austin’s most spotlighted restaurants and found that 80 percent had open line-cook positions, and all had at least one open position from hostess to dishwashers. In a lightning-fast-growing city seemingly teeming with eligible people seeking employment, what could be the disconnect?

“Seven years ago, when we opened Contigo, we would have ten to twenty cook applicants every time we posted a job opening,” says Ben Edgerton, co-owner of Contigo and Chicon. “Now, we literally have zero on some of the postings we make.” Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine and Odd Duck commiserates. “We’re currently looking for three cooks and we aren’t really getting any applicants,” he says. “We post on social media, recruit at culinary schools and Poached has been the best for serious referrals. But at this point, we aren’t even getting responses to Poached postings.”

The kitchen shortages appear to be clearly focused within a certain pay bracket, too. “High-level and managerial labor is out there,” says Executive Chef Drew Curren of ELM Restaurant Group. “When you put that sous-chef, executive-chef or general-manager ad out there, you get a lot of hits. But the real trouble is the line cooks. Anything that’s in the entry level of ten to fourteen dollars an hour—no one wants to do that anymore…and that’s what makes everything happen. We incentivize employees to get their friends to work for us and yet we’re still understaffed.”

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Restaurants have equal difficulty finding front-of-the-house staff in the same pay bracket. “Hiring great servers who have personality, intelligence and a great image are rare finds,” says Principal Tom Kenney of Napa Flats Wood-Fired Kitchen. Jacob Weaver, executive chef at Juliet Italian Kitchen, agrees. “Everyone feels like they should be a bartender or server instead of a busser, back-waiter or host,” he says.

With restaurants opening daily around town, competition is fierce and turnover is extremely high; employees often leave to chase the next new hot spot. And when a large hotel, such as the JW Marriott or Fairmont Austin opens, applicants are lured by not only higher wages but benefits like health care. “The idea that starting at a place and mastering the milestones needed to advance is gone,” says Executive Chef Philip Speer of Bonhomie Restaurant. “Boredom and complacency set in quickly, and people will literally chase fifty cents or a dollar before spending time somewhere to learn something. At interviews, candidates seem surprised when you question why they’ve only worked three months here and six months there.”

To counterbalance the short supply of labor, restaurateurs are being forced to get creative—from starting new training programs to paying bonuses and even funding ride-share opportunities for employees without transportation. Juliet Italian Kitchen started a program to groom and train more of its staff by having them shadow and assist in serving and bartending roles until an opening is available for them to move up. “Now that we have a track record of doing this, it’s a little easier to convince people to come on in in a support role,” says Weaver. “As an added bonus, our servers and bartenders who started in support roles are some of our strongest front-of-the-house team because they had to work for it.”

Taking care of staff is a priority that Gilmore says he learned from his dad, Jack Gilmore of Jack Allen’s Kitchen. “It’s our job as chefs to get the best out of people,” he says. “But it’s also important to make sure they have an environment they can grow and thrive and be happy in.” So, in addition to paying higher wages, Gilmore has begun offering things like employee bonuses for referring new team members and for staying with the company for six months to a year. “I wish we could pay more than we do because the cooks deserve it,” he says. “We make up for the lack of financial compensation by finding incentives in other ways: a positive working environment, a beer or two at the end of the shift…little things can make a difference. We want to motivate people in others ways, but people have to live. The cost of living is going up.”

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Because restaurant jobs, by nature, are lower paying and the cost of living in Central Austin is so high, many restaurant workers commute from neighborhoods in far north, south or east Austin. For suburban restaurants in far west Austin, the lack of transportation translates to fewer job applicants because there are so few bus routes.

Austin’s transportation system can create real challenges for restaurant workers living in Central Austin, as well. Most buses don’t run after midnight, but most cooks and dishwashers working night shifts don’t end their shifts until well after that hour. “If you don’t have a car or work somewhere you can ride your bike, then you can’t work at night,” says Gilmore. “We have a dishwasher at Odd Duck who doesn’t have a car and can’t work some night shifts because he can’t get the bus to go home. If we want him to work that shift, we have to buy him an Uber ride.”

Of course, the labor shortage ultimately has an impact on diners, too—reflected on menus and in wallets. Restaurants face an unpleasant dilemma: raise menu prices, lower food costs by buying cheaper product or pay employees less and run the risk of being short-staffed. “Supply-and-demand would dictate higher menu prices so that we can pay our cooks a livable wage,” says Edgerton. “But raising prices in a competitive market is a very scary thing to do.”

The next time you order that favorite burger, it may cost a dollar more. But before grimacing, glance back at the kitchen. Chances are, that extra dollar goes directly to supporting the hardworking, lower-paid staff and servers in a city that’s getting more and more difficult for many to afford.

By Kristi Willis