What Charlotte Restaurants Are Doing To Combat Industry-Wide Employee Shortage

Nov 15, 2018

A job fair held in uptown Charlotte Tuesday highlighted how the labor shortage is changing the food industry. At the fair, there was a mixture of high-end restaurants and some small places about to open. There was even a retirement community represented.

The fair was organized by the Piedmont Culinary Guild’s Executive Director Kris Reid.   

“We sort of need to rebrand the industry all together to be a more welcoming industry,” Reid said. “So we thought this was a good approach — to have music, have food, allowing the chef to engage an employee across the table.”

Restaurants have long had a hard time finding and keeping people to staff the kitchens — and to be servers too. But it’s been a particularly rough go the past few years in Charlotte. Anika Rucker is the pastry chef at Fahrenheit, an upscale restaurant at the top of Charlotte’s skyline. 

Joshua Artis, 22, is looking for a job in the food service industry.
Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE

“With all these new restaurants coming to Charlotte, a lot of people are leaving to go to the new places every single day, I would say,” Rucker said. “Coming in and just applying for anything is better than not coming in for an open position, because we might need you by the next day. We’ll probably call you and have you there by the weekend. It’s just how it works here.”

At the fair, Rucker serves potential employees the restaurant’s fresh chocolate chip cookies and something on a stick called chicken takoyaki.

A former colleague of Rucker’s stopped by her table. Joshua Artis, 22, is looking for work as a prep cook. He said he knows there are plenty of jobs out there and  said he thinks he can be somewhat picky.

“It’s not about when I’m going get a job,” Artis said. “It’s not about how fast I get a job. It’s just about the right job.”

Artis said he’s looking for a job that would pay $12 an hour with health care, a goal he said he should be able to reach.

This economy has given employees some bargaining power, which Kristen Wile said is long overdue. She’s the editor of Unpretentious Palate, a new online publication that explores the city’s food and drink scene. Her recent article “How this Good Economy is Bad for Restaurants” looks at this dynamic. 

She spoke with Morning Edition host Lisa Worf.

Kristen Wile: I don't think [an improved economy] is a bad thing because restaurant workers have traditionally been super underpaid. I mean we're talking, you know, they're on their feet all day. It's a grueling pace — really high stress. [Workers don’t always have] health care. They're working 70 hours a week and making, maybe, $24,000 a year — that’s the median. I think. So, it's been a problem.

It's not a bad thing that this competition is out there for those workers. It's hard for the restaurant owners because restaurants are traditionally very low profit margin businesses anyway. So as these labor costs rise, a lot of restaurants are struggling to continue making a profit.

Lisa Worf: So with restaurants, there’s not usually the standard benefits like vacation time and sick time. What are you seeing restaurant owners [and] managers offering to potential employees to try to get them on board?

Wile: It depends on the size of the restaurant. Some places are lucky enough to be able to offer those benefits, but that's not always what it's about because the quality of life is also a big thing. You know if you're getting health care, that's great. But if you don't have time to spend with the family that's covered with this health care — you know, it's kind of a catch 22.

One thing we're seeing for sure is that restaurants are changing in their cultures. So, kitchens are becoming a lot more welcoming, a lot more tolerant. Partially because, I think, we're just in changing times where it's not okay to yell and berate somebody. But also because [owners and managers] have to keep their staff — and they have to keep the staff happy to do that.

Worf: When did this staff shortage really start getting rough?

Credit Kristen Wile

Wile: It's been rough for a while now, but I think the last year or two has really become almost unbearable for restaurants. I spoke to Toby Franklin who's the COO of Ford Fry restaurants — that's the parent company of Superica in South End. He told me that — in the past year there — lead line cooks were getting $16 an hour a year ago, and now he's up to $20. So, that's a 20 to 25 percent increase he's seeing in positions and wages just in the past year.

Worf: Wow. And is that working?

Wile: He told me that they weren't fully staffed when they opened in South End. So it seems to be kind of working, but still not enough. And they also have a really interesting program there where they basically tell people, “Come work for us and we'll foster your talent. We'll train you to become an executive chef or front-of-house manager.” And so, they've created their own little university system where they can ensure growth for their people.

Worf: How did they afford making that jump in in wages?

Wile: As it was explained to me, their philosophy is: There's so much competition for dining dollars that if you're not hitting 100 percent across the board with service, with food, with ambience, then you're not going to earn those diner dollars.

And so to them, it's worth it to hire people and keep that talent to ensure that the kitchen's running smoothly and that the food is coming out properly all the time. [Restaurants] try and bring in more diners that way because, you know, one of the things that concerns me as a food writer with this shortage is that restaurant consistency is just not there. But so many kitchens have such high turnover that they can't maintain a quality all the time.

Worf: So, does that mean their profit margins are thinner? Or is that passed on to the customer then?

Wile: A little of both.

So, profit margins are slimmer now than they've been in a while. That's partially because of labor costs. It's also because in Charlotte, rising rent is also another thing. We're growing as a city really quickly, so all the desirable neighborhoods have skyrocketing rent.

You also see food costs going up and diners are only willing to pay so much. As a diner, if you ask me, “Hey, would you pay an extra $3 on this meal to make sure that this kitchen staff gets health benefits?” I’d say, “Sure.” But nobody thinks about it that way.

So, I was hoping that this story would start that conversation. What are we willing to pay for to make sure that people who give us these great experiences are taken care of as well?

Worf: Kristen Wile is the editor of “Unpretentious Palate.” Thank you.

Wile: Thank you.

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