Not Enough Cooks In The Kitchen!

Last weekend I spent some time with a restaurant owner friend of mine.  He runs a great place, everyone loves it, but he’s having a problem.  They are having a hard time hiring cooks.  We can commiserate on this because of my background running HR at Applebee’s, he knows I understand his pain.

In the restaurant business you don’t just shut your doors when a cook doesn’t show up to work. You put on an apron and start cooking. Customers are coming, and they don’t care that some kid would rather get high, then cook their steak.  Welcome to the show!  Oh, you thought some upstanding educated professional was back in the kitchen cooking your $50 steak!? That’s cute.

I told my friend good luck, and we went on our way.

Then I read this from the Washington Post:

The shortage of able kitchen hands is affecting chefs in Chicago, where restaurateurs said they are receiving far fewer applications than in past years. “It’s gotten to the point where if good cooks come along, we’ll hire them even if we don’t have a position. Because we will have a position,” Paul Kahan, a local chef, told the Chicago Tribune last week.

It’s also an issue in New York, where skilled cooks are an increasingly rare commodity. “If I had a position open in the kitchen, I might have 12 résumés, call in three   or four to [try out] in the kitchen, and make a decision,” Alfred Portale, the chef and owner of Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant Gotham Bar and Grill, told Fortune recently. “Now it’s the other way around; there’s one cook and 12 restaurants.”

And it extends to restaurants out West. Seattle is coping with the same dilemma. San Francisco, too.

Looks like it’s not a local hiring dilemma, but a national trend!

It’s not just cooks. All over the U.S. HR and TA pros are struggling to find people for low and semi-skilled jobs that want to work.  You know, the kind of people who will show up each day when their shift starts, for more than one day in a row! That is the new sought after skill in America! Just showing up for work.

So, why do we have a shortage of cooks?

  1. Many, many, many cook positions are filled by Mexican workers. Over the past five years the U.S. has seen a flat or negative growth of Mexican workers entering the U.S.
  2. We have entire generations that don’t cook and eat at home.  If you never learned how to make your own grilled cheese, there is a good bet you won’t apply for a cook position.
  3. The pay is lower than it probably should be (see #1 above). Restaurants have gotten away with paying low wages to cooks because many used illegal workers with shared or fake papers.  No one wants to pay $20 for a burger and fries.

Something interesting is going to happen, slowly. Prices will rise, because wages of cooks will rise to attract people to these jobs.  Menu prices will rise to meet the wage demand. Eventually that will drive prices to a point where many people will decide to cook and eat at home.  Restaurants will go out of business.

It’s the $15/hr fast food debate.  Do you want to pay $9.99 for a Happy Meal for your kid? No. Fewer happy meals sold equals fewer fast food jobs.

It’s all simple economics, not politics.  We make choices based on the perceived value we get.  If the perceived value is too low, we will make other choices.  Give it time, you’ll see.

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