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Culinary Agents CEO Alice Cheng on the restaurant worker shortage and how workers will return to the industry ‘on their timeframe’
As restaurants across the country expand capacity, reopen for indoor dining, and prepare for a new season of outdoor service, owners are struggling to find staff to meet their needs. Many workers still don’t feel safe returning to work during a pandemic. Others don’t want to fight with patrons over health and safety guidelines. Some may have left town or joined another industry while they were laid off and will return when the timing and opportunity are right.
Alice Cheng, CEO of hospitality industry job search engine Culinary Agents, has a macro view of the hiring trends across various cities and states and is a careful observer of candidate behavior. “A lot of the data that we see is there’s so many people looking at jobs, more so than in the past, and they’re waiting,” Cheng told Eater’s Digest podcast this week. “So, the data implies that people are looking, saving, clicking, curious, but they’re not taking action as quickly as they did in the past, for various reasons.”
Cheng is confident the workers will return, that the hospitality industry is a center of gravity for so many. But not right away. “They will come back in waves and on their timeframe. That’s just going to take a little bit of time. Nobody wants to hear that,” she says.
Listen to Cheng discuss what she’s seeing in her data, which cities are attracting the most candidates from out-of-state, how industry workers are beefing up their resumes right now, and what restaurateurs can do to get an edge over the competition. Her interview starts at the 16:35 mark, after our conversation with workers’ rights advocate Saru Jayamaran.
Or read the condensed and edited transcript of our conversation below.
It seems like right now is really when people are ramping up hiring, and now, we’re seeing all these stories about staff shortages from the restaurateurs’ point of view, all over the country. As we know, the labor market was tight even before the pandemic. What are you seeing from where you sit?
You’re exactly right, and you see different scenarios and different challenges depending on the state and city as well. Some have had their ongoing challenges of just turnover, normal turnover of hiring in certain cities like Miami, where they had an influx of people in general, coming down there. They had to staff up and keep things going. So, their challenges were far different than the state of California or New York, or Philly or Chicago that were shut down for indoor dining completely.
As we’ve seen things unfold, what’s interesting is that pre-COVID, people were looking for certain qualifications. They were looking for line cooks with certain skills or certain experience and when they didn’t find that level, they said, “Oh, there’s a shortage”, or “I’m not finding what I need.”
The difference now is, especially with everyone reopening or the cities that are allowed to reopen that were closed, all the delayed projects from 2020 that are opening, people are hiring full-fledged staffs, multiple people per position. Not just like, I need one here, one there, but for a business owner, if you’re reopening and you’re getting your delayed projects back on track, you’re looking for 10 cooks. You’re looking for 20 cooks.
So, you have these restaurant groups that are opening entirely new restaurants because they were delayed until this moment. And then you have restaurants that are basically hiring new staffs because they laid everybody off and those people aren’t around anymore to take their jobs back if they even want to go back.
And then you throw in the complications of depending on what city, state. In Atlanta, for example, where the business takes more responsibility of helping the worker with unemployment, when they’re ready to call you back, you have to come back to them versus other cities that have different rules and the job seeker can manage to that and what works best for them. So, you might get called back. You might not want to return there. You might find a job somewhere else. So, there’s that.
I think it’s a delay in job seeker activity. It’s not like the government gave the businesses three or four weeks lead time to say, “Okay, a month from now, you’ll be able to open up 50 percent capacity.” A lot of times businesses were getting notified a week ahead of time: “Okay. You can open”.
A lot of things go into just opening as you know, and from a worker standpoint, maybe priorities have shifted for them. Maybe they’re currently employed in something that is not as exciting as their previous job in hospitality, but it’s helping them get by now and they’re going to wait and see a little bit. A lot of the data that we see is there’s so many people looking at jobs, more so than in the past and waiting. So, the data implies that people are looking, saving, clicking, curious, but they’re not taking action as quickly as they did in the past, for various reasons.
I saw Washington City Paper covered this and they were talking about how workers don’t just want to sit at home and collect unemployment. They just want to be very selective and very careful and are taking more time and don’t feel super rushed.
Right. You can’t blame them. I mean, that’s kind of what you would expect people to do. Especially, if some of them are considering relocating or going back home, or using this as an opportunity to move to the city that they’ve been wanting to. So, being a little bit more thoughtful, looking for different things, perhaps in what an employer can offer.
Almost a whole year has passed. As we kept in touch with and supported a lot of the workers during this time, individuals went through their own personal development and their own kind of re-prioritizations and folks who have temporarily chosen to do something else, I personally believe that this industry is one of those centers of gravity. People may go do something else and after a while, they might be like, “Well, I really do miss this,” or their buddy is back in the industry and they pull them back in.
I feel really confident that, yes, at this very moment when every single business is chomping at the bit to hire and to staff up that the workers are there. They’re watching. They will come back in waves and on their timeframe, and when they need to, and that’s just going to take a little bit of time. Nobody wants to hear that.
What else is the data telling you?
In certain cities, we are able to see, for example, in the New York Tri-State area, for the most part, the majority of the applicants and the job speakers are in New York. But in states and cities like Atlanta, Georgia, we can see that, yes, there are a lot of people in Atlanta that are looking at jobs, but then people that are in Florida, people from New York, you can see people that are physically in other cities that are looking for a job in that state.
This industry has always been very nomadic, for the right job, working for the right person, or just if the timing is right, people are willing to move for the opportunity. That’s one of the wonderful things about this industry. I think what 2020 also showed was that some people who physically had to move, either permanently or temporarily, found other ways to fulfill what they wanted, either temporarily or permanently.
Based solely on your own internal data, you could make a claim stating which cities actually had the greatest supply demand differential for workers?
What are those cities right now?
That’s a great question. I’ll twist it a little bit with my answer and say the surprising cities that have just kind of popped were ones that were growing. Texas, so Austin, Houston, Dallas, lots of job opportunities, lots of people looking at those jobs from all different cities. That was kind of surprising. The other one is Nashville. Again, lots of opportunities.
The other interesting data point for us is in Chicago. With Chicago we saw the number of jobs spike up very, very, aggressively. The volume of people looking at jobs remained stagnant and didn’t spike up with the number of jobs we usually see. However, the number of applicants spiked up. So to us, the data says it’s the same people that are applying to all of these jobs. There’s so many more opportunities. So, if you’re a business, what I would recommend is respond to those applicants as quickly as possible. Put your best foot forward and schedule your trails and follow through with them.
We did a survey earlier this year in anticipation of this kind of mass hiring frenzy so that we can highlight some things that were top of mind for job seekers and share that with businesses. It was interesting from a job seeker standpoint. Priorities definitely changed. A lot of them, the number one fact that people were looking for in an opportunity with what an employer could offer, was career opportunities. Am I going to have job security? Is there growth for me here, or should I spend my time and effort with this particular employer? Is that going to pay off for me?
What are some of the incentives you’re seeing restaurants offer or hospitality companies offer to get more, be more competitive?
There are the immediate ones, like the quick fixes that we’re seeing and then we’re seeing the longterm more structural ones. We do see businesses reevaluating their benefits packages. That may include things like flexible scheduling, childcare, those types of things. A little more longer term. We do see people offering retention bonuses for more near term, signing bonuses in certain situations, or referral bonuses, like giving their existing employees bonuses if they bring on one of their friends or they help recruit for them and then that person stays on for X amount of time. So, not so dissimilar to some of the incentives that people had in place pre-COVID, but a little bit more sense of urgency now, I would say.
Are you noticing that it’s a certain type of job that is particularly in demand or is it just across the entire industry, front of house, back of house, dishwashers, everybody?
It is across the board, but the surprising point of data that we did that wasn’t consistent with pre-COVID is that front of house positions, servers and hosts. Whereas, in the past, line cooks and specific back of house positions were always notoriously the number one pain point. Some businesses were open throughout this time and they retained and kept some of their back of house staff. There is a little bit more negotiating power for employees in general. For front of house, potentially, there’s more exposure so that there is a safety factor that’s a little different that may come into play still here. And for folks who are on tipped wages, it’s very unpredictable right now, depending on the city and state.
I do see that there’s a little bit more urgency. I’m also seeing that businesses, historically, who are looking for even a certain level of experience with the host, hostess or an entry level position, are really now focusing on positive can-do attitudes.
Is pastry on the rise or the decline post-COVID?
I have seen more savory folks beefing up their pastry skills. So, kind of this focus on cross-skilling and up-skilling across the board. We do see pastry positions, all levels like executive level to prep level, still actively on our site. That’s an indicator that that is still a position that is valued. Baking has been folded more into it in a way. So, instead of before just being like a pastry, now it’s like Baker, a Baker/Pastry, etc.
What do you say to restaurateur that comes to you for advice on this stuff? Is it just about the perks and the money?
A couple of things that are very practical, things that are helpful, is something as simple as just taking a look at your job descriptions and just making sure that your employer value prop or your culture or something is highlighted in there and that you’re actually representing yourself the way that you would want to be represented as somebody who wants to work for you.
A lot of businesses do amazing jobs focusing on all their guest-facing things, but when it comes to their employee or potential candidate facing things, sometimes, there’s room for improvement. I actually encourage people to be as transparent as possible because that is something I think is top of mind to job seekers is like, “Give me my information. Don’t try to beat around the bush and give me a job description that molds four jobs into one. Just tell me what I’m signing up for and then let’s have a conversation.”
I also encourage them to be responsive and as responsive as possible, even though everyone’s very busy. If you see an applicant that you’re interested in, jump on it and connect with them and be responsive because you never know who else is reaching out to them. Those first impressions are important. And then keep at it. You can’t just post one job or tell your team or put an Instagram post up and then be done with it. I always quote. I think Google said it best, which is, “If you can’t be found, you don’t exist.”
Well, Alice, thank you so much. This is so insightful and I think really useful for any of our restaurant industry listeners, as well.
Yeah. Thank you for having me.