John Rinaldo owns the Muse Bar & Kitchen in Worcester, Massachusetts, a city some 50 miles outside of Boston that has seen a resurgence in recent years, especially when it comes to craft beer and food. More than 10 new restaurants have announced they’ll open in Worcester in 2018 thus far, offering options like Korean fare, a 1920s-themed concept, food catering to athletes, and a ramen noodle bar.
At his gastropub that offers smoked meats and aged cheeses, as well as a rotating selection of over 100 craft cocktails, Rinaldo says he already faces challenges in finding employees, and expects the problem to only get worse.
“I just don’t know where all these employees are coming from” to staff these new establishments, he says.
It’s an already challenging problem made worse, says Massachusetts Restaurant Association CEO Bob Luz.
“Across Massachusetts, the food and beverage industry is challenged with the most severe shortage of employees we have ever seen,” Luz says. “In an area such as Worcester, which has had an unprecedented increase in the amount of restaurant seats…that worker shortage is amplified even more.”
Luz says staffing challenges are even hindering restaurant industry growth within the city.
“Many owners are now curtailing expansion plans because they do not have enough workers to staff their existing businesses,” he says.
A National Trend
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, as of 2014, food services experienced high turnover and high openings, at a rate of 4.5 percent. But despite strong hiring activity, the BLS found that three to 10 restaurateurs still see staffing as a challenge.
Not much has improved since then, national statistics show. The National Restaurant Association cited recruiting as a top challenge in 2017.
“Across Massachusetts, the food and beverage industry is challenged with the most severe shortage of employees we have ever seen.” -Bob Luz
The labor shortage gets even more complicated in areas that have a higher-than-average number of workers in the food industry, such as central Florida, which according to the National Restaurant Association, 12.8 percent of workers in the food industry in 2017, reports the Orlando Sentinel.
Industry predictions? More challenges ahead in staffing restaurants.
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According to the Deloitte 2018 Travel and Hospitality Industry Outlook report, “There are now more than 620,000 eating and drinking establishments across the United States, with restaurants currently growing at about twice the rate of the population. … The level of competition within the restaurant industry is unprecedented.”
A factor in this growth, finds Deloitte, is Americans working more and eating out more, along with more investors looking to escape the “failing dot-com era” of the early 2000s and putting more money into the restaurant industry.
“According to our recent customer experience survey, a staff of friendly, hospitable employees was cited as the most important element needed for a positive experience at a restaurant,” reports Deloitte.
Other factors may not be helping the restaurant labor shortage, either. The tight labor market is further complicated with regulatory mandates on pay, scheduling and engagement.
Jared Forman, chef and co-founder of Worcester’s Deadhorse Hill Restaurant, recently opened American-Korean restaurant Simjang in the city. He agrees with Rinaldo and Luz: Connecting with, hiring and training talent takes a lot of time as a restaurant employer in Worcester.
Forman, who has previously worked in Boston and New York, found a number of his 30-some employees from Boston, but he also hires in Worcester, and doesn’t prioritize those with years of on-the-job hours. “I like to get people without a lot of experience and train them,” he says, noting that many had never worked in restaurants before. “If they’ve worked around here, they may have learned bad habits.”
He notes that while some of the other restaurants in Worcester may pay more than he does, they may not be able to pay overtime or offer enough shifts once they hire. Investing in training, plus full shifts for every team member, is a strategy Foreman is banking on for success.
“I’d like to see people from food-rich cities train the next wave of local talent,” he says.
Rinaldo has a similar stance. He tends to favor customer service experience over food service experience, believing that a true commitment to the customer is a core skill. The rest can be learned.
He also sees hiring as an investment on both sides, where he has responsibility as well, especially in a competitive environment. “I offer them training,” Rinaldo says. “Hopefully I am making the commitment to them that they are making to me.”
At the end of the day, Forman notes, not everyone is cut out to work in restaurants.
“It is people who are coded to love pressure, who want to feel the adrenaline of being pushed harder to do more work, and just a little bit more, to achieve what they want to achieve on a plate. And to have it disappear in mouths in 30 seconds,” he laughs. “It takes a special personality.”
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