How Do We Solve the Cook Shortage Issue?

By Brian Murphy, Foodable Contributor

ProStart students making pasta in the classroom | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

ProStart students making pasta in the classroom | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

The restaurant industry is experiencing some major shifts including minimum wage increases, paid time off, procurement issues, and now a concern about the shortage of quality cooks. 

The National Restaurant Association touched on the issue, and many news sources dug deeper: the talent pool for the heart of the house is drying up. And this is an especially bad time for it, as many restaurants embrace the demand for locally sourced ingredients, craft cocktails, and farm-to-table offerings. All of these things take more labor hours and skill. Your chef may have genius ideas, but that isn’t going to help a concept if there is nobody employed that can consistently churn out the homemade bitters, in-house charcuterie, clean the local produce, and execute the rest of the menu.

Children Are the Future

No, this is not about dodging labor laws — this is about an investment in today’s youth. The oldest Gen Z’ers are barely out of high school, so how can they possibly be the solution to a real issue today? Today, they may not be unless you spend a great deal of time scheduling short shifts and signing work permits; but tomorrow brings a potential solution. There are Millennials on the cusp of Gen Z, however, that are frequently overlooked or simply unknown, and getting to know these viable candidates is in every restaurant’s best interest. These are the students that can help today and lead you to a wealth of talent tomorrow.

Below are a few ways to tap into this demographic:

Students plating their food in the ProStart Culinary Cup | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

Students plating their food in the ProStart Culinary Cup | Brian Murphy for Foodable WebTV Network

ProStart

ProStart is a far-reaching National Restaurant Association program that pairs students with industry. National and local support for ProStart helps the program train more than 118,000 students in 50 states, the Territory of Guam, and the Department of Defense Education Activity schools in Europe and Asia. High school students that are talented enough to be involved with ProStart have worked in classrooms that often rival teaching kitchens found in culinary schools. Instructors work tirelessly to teach a hands-on curriculum that gives high school students a very real glimpse into the restaurant world and the skills to make it, right out of the high school gates. 

There is a piece that is missing, however: the industry’s investment of time. Restaurateurs, managers, and chefs are notoriously overworked and far too busy. Priorities need to shift. Time needs to be budgeted for schools with ProStart programs. The potential jackpot for a little invested time is huge. 

Interest

Get in line. Gen Z is being marketed to in every way, shape, and form. Why should they pay attention to an industry that seems way more fun when you are on the receiving end of the restaurant meal? How is blistering knuckles with a Grill Brick and the need for slip-resistant shoes more attractive than the higher paying, air conditioned office job or the tipped server position? 

There is no shortage of tough competition out there. Food is a very powerful and popular part of life to Millennials and Gen Z. Keeping their interest in restaurant work presents a new host of challenges and that is precisely where the industry needs to adjust. 

Compassion

A simple understanding of where new hires are coming from and hiring based on “commitment levels and desire to achieve” are what help make independent Café Pasqual’s a long time success in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Katharine Kagel, Café Pasqual’s founding chef/owner, says the restaurant believes in the potential of each of their workers. 

“We have always opted to promote from within and give paid vacations and deal with the exigencies of family needs with a compassionate attitude.” 

Understand that your new cook fresh out of culinary school has a potential mountain of debt to pay off, and if your hiring practices are weak, you may miss signs that they are only there for the paycheck. Dig deep when hiring, and you may find that they are out for more than a paycheck. Providing a nurturing environment may land you a team of 30-year veterans that run your kitchen like they do at Café Pasqual’s.  

Financial Adjustments

You can provide the most supportive environment imaginable, but if the balance sheet isn’t looking good, the point is moot. The discussion of what to do to counter minimum wage increases and the disparity between cooks and servers will be ongoing. Eliminating tips and increasing prices overall is one idea, tip-pooling is adopted by some restaurants, percentages tipped out vary greatly — there is no one right way. 

Alternatively, there are strategies that keep restaurants like Café Pasqual’s operating and doing it well. Turnover, for example, is incredibly costly. Should you be able to capture some of that Gen Z talent, provide a nurturing environment, and promote from within, you may wind up with a core team that won’t need or want to take that hotel job. 

“We've always taken the view that treating kitchen staff as valuable team members is the key to a stable work force,” says Kagel. “We have one month paid vacation after 5 years, and of course this contributes mightily for longevity of a work group and low turn-over.”