How a chef shortage could change your dining experience

cooks in kitchen

Everyone knows too many cooks in the kitchen is a recipe for disaster. But what if there aren't enough?

Restaurants across the country are having a hard time filling kitchen worker positions, and with no relief in sight, the shortage is likely to change the dining out experience.

"Everyone is opening a restaurant, yet the painful reality is there isn't enough talent to go around," said Andrew Freeman, president of restaurant consulting firm AF&Co.

At Dirt Candy, a well-known vegetarian restaurant in New York City, owner Amanda Cohen remembers when she would receive 30-40 resumes for a kitchen job. Sometimes, cooks submitted résumés when there wasn't an opening.

But the résumé stream has tapered off. "It started dawning on me: It's not that people didn't want to work for me, there's no one left in the city. Cooks have left the city."

In the past, chefs needed New York City or Los Angeles on their résumés to help launch a career, but restaurant growth has exploded across the country, making it easier for chefs to find work in markets with lower costs of living.

Related: Could this mean the end of tipping?

"This industry is going crazy with growth. The pool of qualified candidates is the same, but there are so many more restaurants opening," said Patrice Rice, CEO and founder of Patrice & Associates, a restaurant and hospitality recruitment company.

Intensifying the shortage are other industries luring chefs away from restaurants. Jobs in research and development and food science are attracting cooks out of the kitchen for better pay and more reasonable hours. Cooks are also getting hired by grocery stores looking to beef up their pre-made meals and big tech firms offering on-site meals.

Here's what restaurants are doing attract -- and retain -- chefs:

Rethinking menus

Applebee's is working to simplify its recipes and menu to increase kitchen efficiency.

Its franchisees have reported having a harder time recruiting and retaining cooks in the last six months to a year.

"We are definitely focused on reducing complexity in the kitchen and simplifying the menu," said Applebee's Executive Chef Cammie Spillyards-Schaefer. "We know that from our consumers' perspective, the menu can be cumbersome and hard to navigate and that translates to the job the kitchen has to do," she said.

By streamlining the kitchen, the restaurants can expand their candidate pool.

Some restaurants are also switching the meal services at lunch to reduce staff count, according to Freeman. "They are doing more fast-casual for lunch that requires less talent in the kitchen and the front of the house..and bring back fine dining for dinner."

Delaying openings

When The Keystone in San Francisco was gearing up to open after a major remodeling last summer, it had to increase staff. But hiring proved difficult and delayed the opening by two weeks.

Not only was it hard to find qualified candidates for the kitchen, the competition is stiff. "There are 30-40 restaurants that open a month in the Bay Area," said General Manager Aric Sandoval.

While the restaurant has been up and running for five months, Sandoval said he's always on the hunt for good candidates. "We're still looking very hard."

Increasing Pay

Retaining kitchen workers is just as important as attracting new ones, and increasing pay is a good way to do that.

A growing number of restaurants are getting rid of tipping in order to get kitchen workers' pay closer to the waitstaff's.

"The disparity between the back and front of house is absurd. Everyone is working for the restaurant, why some are getting paid so much more, that made no sense to me," said Cohen.

By eliminating gratuity and adding a 20% administrative fee at her restaurant, Cohen is able to pay the kitchen workers at least $15 an hour.

Consolidating jobs

Having a smaller staff can also reduce costs and allow higher wages for employees. At Petit Crenn in San Francisco, the people cooking the food are also serving it.

"It's rewarding to the chef when clearing the plates to hear the feedback," said Courtney Humiston, general manager. "It enhances our guest experience: they can hear about the food by the person who cooks it."

There are no designated servers at the family-style modern French bistro, which allows it to pay the kitchen workers more.

"The restaurants with the best compensation packages and more opportunities for kitchen talent, those are the ones that will survive if there is any leveling off in the restaurant sector," said Freeman.

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