6 Steps Towards Solving the Chef Shortage Problem

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It’s no secret.

I think we’ve all heard by now that there’s a “shortage of qualified cooks and chefs” across North America, the U.K. and Australia specifically. If you’re not experiencing it first hand as an operator or chef, you’ve surely read one of the numerous articles on why it’s happened.

How big is the problem? It’s got to the point now where we’re seeing operators offer financial incentives to the general public who refer a chef to them.  We've got to be realistic and address these issues now before it’s too late!

Before we go yelling about ‘millennials’ again, we can’t blame them wholeheartedly for this one. Owning a restaurant has become easier since the economy recovered and establishments are opening at a rate that the pool of qualified cooks just can’t keep up with.

When we then pair that with the ‘history of harassment’ within the kitchen, the ‘low wages,’ and the ‘long hours’— what we have is a bursted bubble. These problems are not the fault of millennials, many of these issues started before they were even born!

As an industry, let’s stop complaining, let’s stop feeding excuses, and let’s collectively come up with winning solutions. These solutions may not be for every concept and size of kitchen, they may not drive results overnight (it will take time), but it’s a start and we have to start somewhere.

1. Create a Better Hiring Program.

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Like that of a restaurant's overall operations, there needs to be structure and systems within the hiring process. Don’t think you can just put out an ad and make it sound like you’re the best paying establishment in town. The old adage remains, ‘money is not a motivator - it is a satisfier.’

Hire for values and not only experience. Use your vision, mission, value, and culture statements to develop a marketable hiring program. From there, write stronger job descriptions, look for ways to improve the interview process, and finally, create a welcoming package that will get your new candidates excited!

2. Create a Training System.

It starts from the top. The lead chef should be continuously training, leading, and improving their team. Cooks are motivated by challenges and opportunities. Create operating systems, create achievable and measurable personal goals, and review/reward cooks after a given time-frame. Allot specific time each week for training to empower the kitchen team through continuous education.

3. Create a Pay Grade.

The days of paying line cooks just over minimum wage needs to come to an end. A lot of current business models aren't set up to pay the cooks an appropriate wage to properly compensate for the amount of training and the work that goes into the job, day in and day out.

Pairing that with an increase in living costs, and you now have a large reason why cooks are choosing another career, even though they would prefer to be in the kitchen. Create a structured pay scale that is fair and goal oriented. Show them the path to success in the industry and re-work your financial outlook.

4. Create Culinary Scholarships. 

Consider starting a program that offers to help pay for culinary education. Once a candidate passes their three month probation, discuss an opportunity for them to take their learning to another level.

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You will also learn if they plan to have a long tenure with you and if they are worth investing in. Work with your local culinary schools or ones within your general region. Every restaurant can do a lot to improve its own staff retention and this will instantly relieve the pressure within the hiring program.

5. Create a Positive Environment.

The old way of operating a kitchen is what burns a cook out. The hours, the pay, and often (sadly) the ongoing harassment could only last so long within the industry and can only last so long on any human for that matter. Create an energized environment, create flexible hours, and enforce rules of conduct.

Give them a reason to enjoy coming to work each day, outside of the paycheck. Create team experiences. Once you have done this, create a “stay interview” which is asking them why they love working for you? Imagine the social reach if this was captured on video and then shared online!

6. Create Financial Programs.

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Most restaurants take an average one to two percent of tips for their kitchen staff, but why not four to five percent— a percentage that is achievable and fair for all staff? Servers will still, on average earn eight to 10 percent, or more depending on establishment.

Additionally, set-up financial goals for your kitchen team. If they control food costs to a desirable level, reward them. Create a team-oriented environment, which is now the time to ‘satisfy’ them with money or other related rewards.

The biggest argument to the above is time and financial resources. Time is just an excuse. Having zero financial resources is just an excuse. Control your costs and increase your perceived value, both inside and outside of the kitchen.

Once you have formulated this mindset, and designed these programs, it’s time to promote it. Get your staff to talk about it, get them to help in your recruitment efforts, create a story on your website and menu, showcase your staff everywhere possible (social media), and finally invest in their future for the sake of yours!

If we can all collectively come up with positive solutions, it will make the industry more inviting and it will create more enrollment in culinary education, which will then result in more resumes and a larger pool of candidates. It starts now, and it starts with all of us!

By Doug Radkey, Industry Expert