Step into Rainbow Chinese Restaurant in Minneapolis, Minn. and you’ll almost always find owner Tammy Wong in the kitchen. Whether she’s personally creating dishes for former Vice President Walter Mondale’s birthday or peeling carrots, she’s the “chief cook and bottle washer” because she has to be.
“For awhile, it was hip to go to culinary school. People wanted to be famous when they got out of school, like they see on TV shows with famous chefs,” Wong said. “Last year, when I put out an ad that I was hiring, I had 20 to 30 applicants. Not all of them were qualified, but I called the most. People didn’t show up, they were late to interviews. I actually had someone hang up on me twice.”
The labor shortage has been a constant challenge in the Twin cities, at least for the past two years. And there’s no sign that it will become less problematic soon. The number of vacancies for cooks and prep workers in Minnesota rose from 1.4 percent in 2010 to 6.7 percent in 2015.
The result is that many restaurants have to make due, doubling up duties for owners and managers and even choosing to shrink the hours they’re open to control for costs.
“People realize quickly that you don’t get to graduate and call yourself a chef, you’ve got to pay your dues. It’s very physically demanding work. You’re going to work when a lot of people are out having fun.”
Wong elected to close during lunch on weekdays. Fewer hours open allows her to increase the pay for back of house staff. Sometimes she hires people solely to work on specialized tasks such as making thousands of egg rolls or wontons. On slow days, they prep.
“You make adjustments, you work smarter,” she says.
The labor shortage here is the local version of a national problem. From the front to the back of the house, restaurateurs are constantly in search of genuine talent as the workforce hasn’t kept pace with demand. The labor pool is getting shallower, according to the National Restaurant Association, while the number of jobs in kitchens alone is projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow by 200,000 over the next decade.
“This is a blue-collar job with a white collar image,” says Manfred Krug, chef instructor at Saint Paul College. “People realize quickly that you don’t get to graduate and call yourself a chef, you’ve got to pay your dues. It’s very physically demanding work. You’re going to work when a lot of people are out having fun.”
He cites the prevalence of food shows on television as initially a positive development for the industry because they focus on what happens in kitchens. “But, it gave people a lot of false sense that it’s a fun career or a fun industry,” he says. “It’s not an easy profession.”
“We’ve changed our parameters in terms of what we do for service”
Krug says that many culinary students now have a variety of visions of where they’d like their careers to progress – and many don’t involve restaurant kitchens. From senior care facilities and corporate food service to food trucks and cupcake shops, he says there is a tremendous amount of opportunity in a field that offers the chance to advance relatively quickly.
“We tell our students to work hard and show up,” Krug says.
Thomas Kim, owner of The Rabbit Hole in the Minneapolis Midtown Global Market, feels the pinch of back of house labor shortage as well, but says the situation has motivated him to get creative in his staffing and scheduling choices.
“We’ve changed our parameters in terms of what we do for service. We’re closed two days a week and open for lunch. Everyone gets two shared consecutive days off and everyone is guaranteed 40 hours. That part is really nice. But if someone goes on vacation or gets sick, then their absence is felt,” Kim said.
“We are staffed where it’s just enough to get by for service on the weekend, but when one person is out, the rest of us start to feel it. You see your employees start to get deflated a little bit because they’re so stressed out.”
Like Wong, Kim’s issue was not a lack of job seekers, it was a lack of qualified applicants. “Out of 20 people, maybe one person – at most two – would be even semi-qualified for us to sit down with them. People are looking at kitchen jobs as the same as entry level retail jobs. They perceive that knowing what a knife is means they have a skill set they could apply to this job.”
This has led to a shortage of cooks in the kitchen nearly everywhere, but particularly in cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul where the number of restaurants has erupted in recent years.
The closure of culinary schools — often the labor pipeline restaurants depend on — has further exacerbated the back of house labor shortage. Three of the five local culinary school locations have shut down since 2014 or plan to close soon.
“When you graduate from business school, you’re not going to become a CEO,” said Kim. “These (culinary) schools, in order to recruit and retain, were filling the curriculum with falsehoods, telling people they’d become chefs when they graduate. It saturated the market with people who got deflated.”
The mere trickle of candidates from the culinary school pipeline mirrors a national trend. Many culinary schools across the country are facing shrinking enrollment or closure. Perhaps the most well-known, Le Cordon Bleu, has ceased enrollment in the 16 programs it ran in the United States.
This has led to a shortage of cooks in the kitchen nearly everywhere, but particularly in cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul where the number of restaurants has erupted in recent years. The shortage of back of house talent is especially noticeable.
But despite the shallow pool of qualified workers, most Twin Cities restaurant owners believe the talent is there. They just have to dig deep.
“I will find people, I just need to keep looking. I’ve shared my story, my history, but the restaurant’s legacy wasn’t enough to bring in candidates,” Wong says. “We’re looking for people with some experience who are passionate about cooking, willing to listen and learn. I just need to keep looking.”