Cook shortage struggle for local chefs

July 31, 2018

The hiring process has become the repetition of disappointment for Joan Brady, the chef and owner of Crawdaddy’s Cajun and Creole Cuisine.

She posts an online job opening, having to pay for any submitted applications. A prospective employee contacts her and an interview is scheduled. The day of the interview arrives, the scheduled time passes, and no one shows up.

“It appalls me,” Brady said. “I’m constantly speechless.”

Over the last six months, Brady estimated there have been more than 20 no-shows for job interviews at the Broad Street business, which she opened after having a food truck for three years, following her graduation in 2013 from the Georgia Northwestern Technical College culinary arts program.

Brady soon had enough, suspecting those applying for the jobs were simply doing it to continue receiving unemployment checks. Now when someone does not show up for an interview, she sends their name and pertinent information to the Georgia Department of Labor, for officials there to do with it as they will.

“It’s not helping anyone to sit and draw unemployment,” she said. “People need to work.”

Fulfilling her restaurant’s staffing needs is a daily headache, Brady said, as it is for other local chefs, as well as those running restaurants across the nation. This has left restaurant owners wondering what the future holds, as current positions are a struggle to fill while labor estimates indicate more than a 100,000 more cooks jobs will be needed nationwide by 2026.

“I think it’s a national epidemic,” Brady said, adding her industry is not the only one having similar problems.

Harvest Moon Cafe owner Ginny Kibler and Seasons chef Chris Blackmon joined Brady in believing the cook shortage comes down to work ethic.

“It’s kind of scary to me,” Kibler said of the changes in the industry, where the idea of having to start at the bottom, a dishwasher like she was, and move up in the kitchen hierarchy through hard work seems to be a foreign concept to many.

“It’s an adrenaline rush if you love it, but it’s not easy,” Kibler said.

All three said the cooking shows gloss over the reality of the kitchen, which intensely confronts anyone holding the illusion of cooking being an easy job as soon as they enter its hot, exhaustive and stressful environment.

“I think people make it look glamorous,” said Blackmon, who also graduated from the GNTC culinary arts program. “It’s not as easy as it appears.”

Blackmon was somewhat hesitant to tally the apparent aversion to hard work as a generational theme, specifically millennials, since he has brought on some good young workers who didn’t have much experience in cooking but always brought a strong work ethic. However, in the industry, he said it is rare to keep the knowledgeable and well-trained cooks on board.

And though Blackmon said he has a “really good crew” at the restaurant now, a few departures could alter the dynamic has in his kitchen.

These vital members of the kitchen leave restaurant owners “just praying to God they won’t leave,” Brady said, adding that she always looks to reward these employees with raises before others. But there still are those who will leave to a restaurant down the street offering 20 cents more an hour, she said.

Kibler too said there is a core group at Harvest Moon, which has a staff of over 80 employees, who have stayed; the problem is finding new people wanting to enter the industry and stay there to pursue their passion.

“If you don’t have a passion for this industry than you’re not going to hang on,” Brady said. “You’re driven by your passion.”

For front of the house staff at Harvest Moon, most of these employees leave for other industries, such as college students working as waiters before they land a job in their desired field. The loss of back of the house employees is mainly due to a weak work ethic.

“The skateboard dude who would rather skateboard and does not care if he makes a paycheck or not,” Kibler said of certain employee departures, like those thinking short-term, opting to live with their parents to not have to keep a job or take one with similar pay without having to work as much.

Brady, Kibler and Blackmon said students in the culinary program at GNTC are exposed to the real working environment of a professional kitchen and are more prepared to enter the workforce. However, a reliable feeder system from the program into local restaurants has not been established, outside of a few cases, they said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the employment need of restaurant cooks by 2026 will be 1,377,200. This is 145,300 more restaurant cooks needed than the 2016 level, a 12 percent growth over a 10-year span.

For the overall employment of cooks, there is an estimated 6 percent growth from 2016 to 2026, or 147,600 more cooks needed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Overall job opportunities are expected to be very good as a result of employment growth and the need to replace workers who leave the occupation,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Cooks with previous training and related work experience will have the best job prospects.”

The job outlook from the BLS also indicates those with an ability to prepare more complicated dishes will have a higher likelihood of securing employment at high-end hotels and resorts, as well as chain and upscale restaurants.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of people see it as a career,” even if it means sticking through lower-paying positions until being promoted, Blackmon said. “It can very well be a lucrative career if you have the time and patience.”

The patience of enduring through challenges and difficult experiences is hard to come by it seems, Brady said, with employees simply leaving when the work gets rough.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” Brady said. “I think we’re facing a generational crisis.”

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