Inside an 800-square-foot shop, D.C.-based social entrepreneur Ahmad Ashkar is using his Mom's falafel recipe to raise money for refugees.
Washington’s food scene is expanding rapidly, with new restaurants popping up along the 14th Street and H Street corridors on a near-weekly basis. Yet, even as the local industry flourishes, restaurant owners are finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified staff to run their kitchens and serve the ever-growing dining crowds. We explore the reasons behind the shortage of restaurant workers and what this means for the city’s diners.
- Jessica Sidman Food Editor, Young & Hungry columnist Washington City Paper
- Robert Wiedmaier Chef and restaurant owner, Marcel's, Brasserie Beck, Brabo and Mussel Bar & Grille.
- Chris Floyd Founder, Capital Restaurant Resources.
- Michael F. Curtin, Jr. Chief Executive Officer, D.C. Central Kitchen
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's "Food Wednesday." In Washington a good cook can be hard to find. The local restaurant industry seems as healthy as ever, dozens of restaurants are opening up on 14th Northwest while other neighborhoods like H Street and Columbia Heights quickly rise through the foodie ranks.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut as the food scene booms restaurant owners are running into a problem. There just aren't enough workers. Positions that once drew 50 experienced applicants now bring in only handful. Filling top level positions has become so hard that many are getting help from recruiters while others resort to something called poaching or in other words stealing your competitor's staff.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to discuss what this means for restaurants owners, workers and of course, Washington diners is Jessica Sidman, food editor and "Young and Hungry" columnist for "The Washington City Paper," where she recently wrote about the problem of restaurant staff shortages. Jessica, thank you for joining us.
MS. JESSICA SIDMANThanks for having me.
NNAMDINext to Jessica is Robert Wiedmaier. He is a chef and owner of several restaurants in the Washington area including Marcel's, Brasserie Beck and Brabo. Robert, good to see you.
MR. ROBERT WIEDMAIERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Chris Floyd, founder of Capital Restaurant Resources, that's a recruiting agency for local and national restaurants. Chris, thank you for joining for us.
MR. CHRIS FLOYDThanks for having me, great to be here.
NNAMDIIf you want to join the conversation, what do you think or why do you think local restaurants are having trouble finding qualified servers or cooks? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDIChris, I'll start with you. For the last few years the restaurant industry has been out of sync with the rest of the economy. While the economy floundered from the recession restaurants kept on opening. Now, while most industries are overwhelmed with job applicants, Washington restaurants apparently can't find enough workers. How big a problem has this really become for local restaurant owners?
FLOYDWell, I think it is a big problem for the restaurant industry here. I think it stems from a number of reasons. One, obviously our economy has boomed and both local and national restaurateurs see the opportunities in Washington to open new restaurants. They like it for the steady income of government workers and all the peripheral businesses.
FLOYDAnd we have a very educated and wealthy demographics. So you see out-of-towners like Stephen Starr and these big restaurateurs from New York looking to D.C.
FLOYDThe other thing I think is sort of something fundamental about D.C. and I used to be a chef is that this is not a traditional restaurant town in the same way that New York City or San Francisco or Chicago might be.
FLOYDIn fact, when I got out of culinary school and looked around for jobs in '94 I thought the D.C. restaurant scene was pretty boring so I went to San Francisco and when I told people that I was going to culinary school and going to be a chef in '91 people looked at me like I was crazy.
FLOYDAnd, you know, if you told that to people they would say, that's so cool. And so, you know, there's been a sea change in how we view restaurants both nationally and locally.
FLOYDBut the job, the people who are looking for those jobs both in management and hourly they're not here because people come to D.C., I think, for government work, to be lawyers, to get secondary education and so, you know, being restaurants or this town as a restaurant town has not always been a destination. And I think that's changing but we haven't gotten there yet.
NNAMDIYes, but Robert, people always talk about high turnover in the restaurant industry so why is the problem with restaurant staffing today any different than it was in the past?
WIEDMAIERWell, I think maybe to piggyback on what Chris is saying is that, you know, back when I first came to Washington D.C. A, there weren't a lot of high-end restaurants. There wasn't even a lot of casual restaurants and, you know, we used to have a lot of cooks knocking on the door to get into work at the upper echelon of restaurants.
WIEDMAIERAnd again, as Chris was saying, this town has exploded from what it was with restaurants to where it is today but there's not been an increase in the population if you were to compare to New York or San Francisco. We're still looking at the same population here than probably was 20 years ago.
WIEDMAIERYes, we've had more people coming in here but people come here not to, like, in New York or San Francisco or Chicago to get into the restaurant industry. They come in here to be lobbyists, attorneys, politicians. It's a political town, it's not really a big restaurant town and I hate saying that because I love Washington D.C. and Washington D.C. has Chris has said, it has changed it a lot. I mean, there are a lot of great restaurants here now.
NNAMDIWell, what did it take for you to find an experienced cook 14 years ago when you first opened up Marcel's in downtown D.C.?
WIEDMAIERWell, 14 years ago when I opened up I had a lot of cooks that wanted to come and work and, you know, and wanted to work in really high end places and very hard restaurants and kitchens to work in.
WIEDMAIERNowadays, my colleagues out there are seeing a whole different feeling of what's going on, you know. There's the more causal places that are a little bit more easier to work at. I mean, working at Marcel's is a very hard, hard job. It demands a lot of time, it demands a lot of execution. It demands a lot of, you know, technical skills and not everybody's into doing that.
WIEDMAIERSo to run the high end restaurant scene is a lot harder than running a more fast casual restaurant. Needless to say, I've got both spectrums from Marcel's to the Mussel Bar and I have seen, when I opened up the Mussel Bar in Bethesda which was an eye opener to me was when I said to the staff, look you need to know all these Belgian beers, you need to know all this food, okay, and you need to know it in detail and, you know, be able to articulate that to our guests.
WIEDMAIERWell, if you're a young 21 year old and you're going well, let me get this right, he wants me to learn all these Belgian beers, he wants me to know this food inside out or I could just go next door and go cheeseburger, well done, medium, Bud Light, Miller Light and still get the average check the same.
WIEDMAIERSo, you know, it's trying to find people that, you know, are in love with food that want to work with food and just enjoy being around people and serving people.
NNAMDIWhen the competition makes it a lot easier. Jessica, as food editor at the city paper you've probably noticed Washington's restaurant scene growing exponentially, new restaurants popping up all around D.C.'s quickly developing neighborhoods. What does it take for one of these new restaurants to find the staff to get into full operation?
SIDMANRight, well you know, I think it's important to mention that it's always been challenging for restaurants to find experienced staff. But from what I've heard talking to chefs and restaurateurs the problem has gotten particularly worst over the six to eight past months with so many restaurants opening.
SIDMANAnd a lot of them are turning to some different tactics to try to recruit staff. Certainly hiring recruiters like Chris and also...
FLOYDI never thought I'd be doing that. I'm doing it.
SIDMANRight, some are offering bounties, you know, bring us a manager that we end up hiring and you'll get $500.00 and then, you know, there's the poaching.
NNAMDIYes, the poaching.
NNAMDISomething we'll talk about in greater detail later on but, Jessica, a wide range of restaurants operate in the District today covering everything from, as Robert was saying, fast casual to fine dining. Are these restaurants all facing equally challenging staffing problems or, as Robert was implying, it's the high end restaurants that are having a harder time?
SIDMANIt's not just the high end restaurants. I think restaurants across the board are having problems but it's particularly bad for high end restaurants because patrons expect an elevated level of cooking and service.
SIDMANAnd it's not enough just to know what's on the menu, you have to know where is it sourced, what wine or beer will pair best and you need experience, it helps to have experienced people to be able to, you know, relay all this information.
WIEDMAIERIt has to be professionals that are this is their job, this isn't just while they're going to school. This is being a professional waiter, captain, sommelier that's passionately in love with, you know, food, wine and spirits, to give a great experience.
NNAMDIThat's Robert Wiedmaier. He is chef and owner of several restaurants in the Washington area. They include Marcel's, Brasserie Beck and Brabo. He joins us in studio along with Jessica Sidman, food editor and "Young and Hungry" columnist for Washington city paper where she recently wrote about the problem of restaurant staff shortages.
NNAMDIChris Floyd is founder of Capital Restaurant Resources, a recruiting agency for local and national restaurants. They all join us in studio. You can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What do you think of Washington's food scene today? Is it growing too fast in your view? 800-433-8850, you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIChris, we talked about the fact that people don't really move here for food industry jobs but do you Washington's reputation in the food world is growing at the same pace as its restaurant industry?
FLOYDI think it is changing, I think the reputation is changing. In fact, during the recession we were able to bring quite a few chefs and managers to the D.C. area from areas such as the Midwest and Florida that were suffering a little bit more.
FLOYDNow, of course, they had the challenge of finding housing in a much more expensive market. our salaries in this industry have crept up a little bit but we're not quite at the New York level and probably, you know, not quite where the restaurant industry staff would like to see it.
FLOYDBut, you know, obviously their businesses and they have to run. But I think as you see, you know, we have some great restaurants groups here like Think Food, Jose Andreas group and, you know, he's certainly has some national stature and as you see John George and Daniel Boulud and some of these New York restaurateurs.
FLOYDStephen Starr as I mentioned, come to town, that does attract the attention of the national scene and so I think the, our dining scene has changed and much for the better. I mean, I think we have a great variety both in these restaurant groups and in mom-and-pops who do some really interesting stuff.
NNAMDIBut this, Robert, a line cook is really a well-paid position. The average rate is around maybe $10.00 or $12.00 an hour. Yet, rent in the Washington area is among the nation's highest. How do you think the cost of living factors into the shortage of restaurant workers here?
WIEDMAIERWell, you know Kojo, that's a great question. The average wage now used to be $10 to $11 to $12. That's changed completely. You know, for my restaurants, I mean, we're starting people off at $14 to $15, $16 an hour for a line cook.
WIEDMAIERAnd a lot of that has to do with, if you're an independent restaurateur and you're in the hotel, you're in the Four Seasons, the Mandarin or, you know, the many other hotels that are out there that are offering very high wages and lot of benefits. We have to compete with that so, you know, the average wage has gone up.
WIEDMAIERMy niece or my cousin, I should say, moved from California last year from the San Francisco based area. She was 18, graduated from high school, moved out here. I talked her into not going to culinary school, I said come and work for me.
WIEDMAIERShe's been with me for a year and she's been a good barometer for me for a young person coming to D.C., you know, trying to find a place to live, making $13, $14 an hour and trying to have a life.
NNAMDIAnd still struggling.
WIEDMAIERAnd still struggling, I mean, it's hard and if she had a school note to pay she'd probably couldn't afford it.
NNAMDIAnd if she was not his relative, Jessica, she might be subject to poaching. So when some restaurant owners can't find experienced staff to get their business up and running, you mentioned it, they turn to poaching. Can you tell us about poaching and how it fits into the problem of restaurant staffing?
SIDMANAbsolutely. Well, I think in the past with the D.C. scene being fairly small it was a very close-knit community of chefs and there was kind of this sacred code that you just don't steal someone's staff right up from under them.
SIDMANBut restaurants are pretty desperate now and they're getting very aggressive in their tactics to find top talent. So it's not uncommon that you'll have a manager go into a competitor's restaurant and try to recruit someone right then and there.
SIDMANI've heard so many horror stories. The other day a restaurateur told me a competitor had been telling her staff that she was having financial difficulties, as a way to lure them away.
NNAMDIOh, that's cold.
NNAMDIThat is cold. Do you think Washington has earned the title of a food city? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or you can send email to email@example.com. Here now is Annie in Washington, D.C. Annie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNIEHi. I just wanted to say when you made the comment about professional workers at high-end restaurants, my brother is a waiter here at a high-end restaurant. And, you know, I think he does not have benefits. He does not have health insurance. He does not have paid vacations. And I think that that's a challenge for him to be able to continue in this work, of which he's very proud and really wants to be in an independent restaurant and have that family work feeling.
NNAMDIAnd he's been in the business, you say, for some 20 years now?
ANNIEYeah, he started in college, has a college degree and he just started working in restaurants and has done it for 20 years.
NNAMDIJessica, care to comment?
SIDMANYeah, I mean, I did ask a lot of restaurateurs, you know, as a result of this are you increasing your wages or your salaries? And the answer was not necessarily. The other thing that restaurateurs are concerned about is their prices. They're worried that if they increase those wages, they're also going to have to increase their prices. And that's never a competitive thing. I think you see restaurateurs investing more in their staff in other ways, whether it's training or other perks. But, to be honest, I haven't seen a lot in terms of that necessarily improving much.
NNAMDIAnnie, thank you very much for your call. Back to poaching for a second, Robert. Having been a chef in this area for decades, how have you seen poaching play out in D.C. restaurants?
WIEDMAIERHere's what I've seen. We, as a group in Washington, have always been a very tight community of chefs. And almost all the chefs in town that most people know are my personal friends. But what we have seen lately -- and I will not name any names -- is this direct poaching of sous chefs, you know, calling them right in the restaurant from other chef friends going right in there and saying, hey I'll pay your more than what he's paying if you'll come and work for me.
WIEDMAIERAnd I've never seen that before. Now we're starting to see that kind of stuff. I've always had a code of honor about -- with any of our guys, if someone comes to me and says, hey I'm working for so-and-so. I'd like to leave. The first thing I say is, have you told them that you're looking to come to work for me, because I will not hire you unless you get the blessing from them. I think that's starting to dissipate a little bit, Kojo. And it's sad to see that happening. I will always hold true to that and I'd like to see all my comrades and colleagues do the same.
NNAMDIWhen it was smaller it was a more tightly knit fraternity/sorority, if you will. Chris, with so many new restaurants hungry for qualified employees, how are restaurants managing to hold onto their staffs?
FLOYDWell, I think, as Jessica said, there are many things that people look for in their job satisfaction in addition to money. I mean, money certainly plays a part. But, you know, I think the better restaurant groups recognize quality of life, try to limit the number of days worked so that, you know, or giving people two days off during the week instead of working them seven days a week.
FLOYDYou know, we have some interesting new clients like Nando's, which is a fast casual from South Africa that has opened its twelfth restaurant now in the area. And they offer four weeks' vacation, very European mindset. And that's very appealing for people and makes it much easier for us to recruit good people when you can say, hey you get this four-week vacation every year. And that's unusual in this business.
FLOYDAnd I think growth is the other thing that people look for. This gives sort of the bigger players an advantage in that if they're opening more restaurants there's always opportunities for people to move up the food chain. So those are the things that I think people look for.
NNAMDIJessica, same question.
SIDMANNo, I agree with that completely. I'm not sure I have anything to add, it was so well said.
NNAMDIWell, Robert, there are a number of big name restaurant groups operating in the city. Do you think independent restaurants can keep up with what they offer, benefits, higher salaries and the like?
WIEDMAIEROh, I think what it boils down to, you know, is trying to find that passionate cook that wants to work, you know, hard and learn a lot in the independent restaurants. Not that they can't in hotel restaurants. I don't want to say that for a second. There's some great hotel restaurants and great chefs. But we're always searching for -- Kojo, we're always searching for that passionate, young kid like Chris over here to my left that worked with me when he was 16 years old for nothing...
WIEDMAIER...you know. But...
FLOYDYell at me all the time.
WIEDMAIER...but we're always looking for young passionate people that want to work hard and break into, you know, the finer finesses of cooking and so on. Not thing that I've done though with my long term employees that have been with me for 14 years, to keep them motivated and happy is when I open up new places I give them a little piece of it. And I think that's only fair, you know. My grandfather told me years ago, pigs get slaughtered. So I've been giving up sweat equity ownership in some of my places to my most valued employees that have been with me for a long time and done that blood, sweat and tears for me.
NNAMDIAnd the other thing, Chris, is with the staff shortages, he doesn't yell as much as he used to. But that's a whole other story.
FLOYDThat was old school. Times have changed.
NNAMDIYeah, we've got to take a short break. When we come back we'll be joined by Michael Curtin of the D.C. Central Kitchen. But you too can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What do you think of Washington's food scene today? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Food Wednesday conversation, too few cooks in the kitchen. Local restaurants face staff shortage. We're talking with Jessica Sidman. She is food editor and Young & Hungry columnist for the Washington City Paper where she recently wrote about the problem of restaurant staff shortages. Robert Wiedmaier is chef and owner of several restaurants in the Washington area, including Marcel's, Brasserie Beck and Brabo. And Chris Floyd is founder of Capital Restaurant Resources. That's a recruiting agency for local and national restaurants.
NNAMDIAnd joining us now by phone is Michael Curtin. He is chief executive officer at the D.C. Central Kitchen where they offer a culinary job training program. Michael, good to hear from you. Thank you for joining us.
MR. MICHAEL F. CURTIN JR.Thank you, Kojo. It's always great to talk to you, my brother.
NNAMDIMichael, while restaurant owners talk of a labor shortage, D.C. still has an unemployment rate that sits at 8.5 percent. Why don't the skill sets of the unemployed meet the needs of the restaurant market?
CURTIN JR.Well, there are probably not enough training programs out there that are focused on meeting those needs. We've been doing this for quite some time and I have to say, as bad as this may sound, in many ways this is good for us. We're working with a very vulnerable, very marginalized population that either has not had employment, that's been incarcerated, battling substance abuse issues, homeless and chronic unemployment.
CURTIN JR.We just graduated our 93rd class two weeks ago, and all 19 of those men and women are now employed in the hospitality industry in the District of Columbia.
NNAMDII've participated in some of those graduations.
NNAMDIRobert, how willing are restaurants to take a chance on people who are unemployed for reasons such as having a criminal history or having had a substance abuse problem?
WIEDMAIERYou know, I think that, you know, every case is different with -- you know, I would have no problem bringing somebody in that's, you know, decided to get their act together and, you know, wants to work hard. I mean, giving people second chances is, you know, the way it should be. And I'm all for that. I don't see why anybody wouldn't be. But I don't think that's happening as much as it should be happening maybe in the restaurant scene. You know, everybody's worried about being sued for something nowadays. Everybody's very litigious in looking for angles to sue somebody.
WIEDMAIERAnd, you know, I just think it's important that as a restaurant community that we are reaching out to, you know, individuals that want to work hard. I mean, it's a real simple formula. Work hard and you will succeed.
NNAMDIAnd many well known chefs work their way up from the lowest position in the kitchen. How common is that today, Robert? I'll ask the same question of Chris and Michael.
WIEDMAIERWell, I mean, that's the way it should be. I mean, I started out as a pot washer and worked my way up through the ranks of cooking. And I think that's very important. The whole apprenticeship program, like Chris Floyd did. He started when he was 16 years old working in a top-end restaurant, I'm going to say 27 years ago.
FLOYDSomething like that.
WIEDMAIERYou know, a long time ago. But he started off as a very young man and worked his butt off and, you know, did very well for himself. I had a gentleman that worked for me when he was 14, Alex Brown who worked for me for eight years, 14. He left me when he was 21 or 22. Now he's working with Eric Ziebold at CityZen. He's been there for the past three or four years.
WIEDMAIERAgain, it really boils down to -- and I say this a lot -- I was having this conversation the other day with a bunch of collegiate people -- hard work pays off. And I don't care what you're doing. If you want to do something, work hard. Get there before you're supposed to get there. Go up to the boss, ask him before, is there anything I can do before I leave? And have that real proactive, I-want-to-work-hard-and-do-things-right-and-learn attitude. And a lot of that is missing nowadays.
FLOYDWell, yeah, it's really, do you have the passion and do you have the work ethic to do this? And, you know, I always tell people, look this is a blue collar job. This is a blue collar industry you're getting into. And, you know, there are going to be hours on your feet and you're going to work hard. And if you enjoy doing that and you enjoy that atmosphere and that excitement of running a restaurant, then it's great. But if you're looking to make, you know, a million dollars, it's the wrong industry for you.
FLOYDAnd, you know, you need to put in that drive. The sad thing I think -- and to go back to the Fresh Start Program in D.C. Central Kitchen, is that there are tons of jobs out there. And yet we have this high rate of unemployment and I think, you know, there is a disconnect. I would like to see more training programs in the city. I think one of the D.C. high schools is focused on hospitality but it's still not enough.
FLOYDAnd one of the great things about the Fresh Start Program is not only do they give them the kitchen training, which is one aspect of it, but they also sort of give them the professional training to present themselves properly in a job interview, to write a resume, to work on gaining the references. And these sort of life skills, I think, are critical also for people getting these jobs.
FLOYDAnd then one more interesting thing I think is, you know, we do have a wide variety of clients from, you know, the very corporate, some hotels to the mom and pops. And we like having those because a lot of times people do have a criminal record in this industry and there can be issues. And so, you know, I think it's -- one of the great things about the restaurant industry is that people can have a second chance. And if they work hard, they will succeed.
NNAMDIMichael, care to comment on that? And how has the cult of celebrity chefs, Michael, influenced the kinds of candidates who now aspire to be in the kitchen?
CURTIN JR.Sure. Well, there's a whole bunch of things to follow up on there, Kojo.
CURTIN JR.And the first thing is to say that it would not be too hyperbolic to say that the kitchen has evolved on the back of or certainly with the support of the hospitality industry in the District of Columbia and Virginia and Maryland who have been willing to give our men and women coming out of our program an opportunity to prove that they can do this job and to show their commitment. And it's folks like Robert and Chris who comes down and meets with every class and talks about that professional angle that has been wildly, wildly important to us.
CURTIN JR.I think on one level, the cult of the celebrity chef has been helpful in that it's much more of an exciting career -- or it appears to be much more of an exciting career now and attractive to many people. I'm a recovering restaurateur myself. I own my own -- I was in the business in hotels and restaurants here for 20 some years and owned and operated my own for about five years in Falls Church. And I say now that was my first experience in a nonprofit sector. Robert has done much better than I.
CURTIN JR.But it is that idea that people see these celebrity chefs. But what we really try to tell people is, that's a very small, small, small percentage of the folks that are doing it. And as both, I think, Robert and Chris pointed out, almost every single one of those folks started out washing pots and pans. And that's how I started. And we really need to make sure people understand that when they're getting into this business.
WIEDMAIERYeah, I think that's a very good...
NNAMDIGo ahead, Robert.
WIEDMAIERI'm sorry, Kojo.
NNAMDINo, go ahead.
WIEDMAIERBut I think that's very, very well said. And I think that's what we need to tell everybody when we're talking about -- like, Chris, in your position and articles that you write, Jessica, it's like, you know, when I was a very young man I never said I want to become a cook to make a lot of money. And my dad said to me, what, are you nuts, you know? You want to be a cook...
FLOYDYeah, my family too.
WIEDMAIER...you know? So it's -- I got into it because it was something I loved to do and I just happen to be a really good cook, and just ran with it. But I say this to everybody we hire. It's like digging ditches being a cook. It's not -- you know, you're in there, you're sweating, you're -- it's hot, you're getting, you know, directed all day long what to do. You have to be able to be humble and say, I'm learning something here. And if I continue to do this -- and especially now the way everything is right now -- there's a lot of room if you're a really hard worker and motivated and passionate. You can move up the ladder pretty quick if you prove you want to do that.
NNAMDIMichael talked about building on the backs of the hospitality industry. I think that's what Susan in Alexandria, Va. wants to talk about. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANThanks for having me. This is a great discussion. I worked in corporate (word?) acquisitions for two major hotel chains in the area for five years. And I think you guys would be remiss if you didn't talk about the role hospitality plays in this town. D.C. is now the center of hospitality in the U.S. And it's really important to think about how you can work together with them because they do offer growth and opportunities.
SUSANAnd they are -- instead of just saying here's what you need from potential workers, they're actually saying, here's our employer brand. Here are the things that we offer that are different from other potential places you would work. So I think that's an important part of the discussion that we keep ignoring.
NNAMDIOkay. Michael, that's the point you were making.
CURTIN JR.Yes. And I think what -- to take that even farther -- and this is really an important, important piece, especially for the work that we do -- I believe it's still the case. It was when I was chair of the local association, that the hospitality industry is the -- I think it's the largest or second largest private employer in this area and in the country. And so for that reason, we have to look at the economic impact that the industry has here and around the country.
CURTIN JR.And you're talking specifically about our population, folks again coming out of prison or in recovery, the economic impact that we can have to make our community a better place by giving these men and women opportunities is staggering. We've been doing some statistics lately adding up just four small data points, years of incarceration, years of supervisory release, years in halfway houses and years in addiction or substance abuse programs. In an average class, Kojo, of 25 people in our program, one class has cost the community about $6.4 million in just those four markers.
CURTIN JR.Now, it costs us about 200,000 to train that same group. And once they get employed and are having jobs and are out of support of housing, paying rent, buying food, buying clothes, going to the movies, supporting their families, that economic value to the community is about $4.2 million. So...
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up because -- please finish your thought, Michael.
CURTIN JR.No. I was going to say, so what we really need to think about is tying these pieces together, the need that we have, the opportunity for training and employment. But ultimately the restaurant community has been, and I believe has even a greater opportunity to be more of a leader -- a thought leader in this field, but also an economic driver, even to a great extent than it's been today.
NNAMDIGlad you brought up the issue of training because we have a lot of questions about that. I'll start with Robert. A constant stream of new hires can mean a lot of training. What strain does that put on the kitchen?
WIEDMAIERWell, you know, any time we hire anybody in the kitchen or in the dining room, we -- first of all, they have to stand in the kitchen for like two days and watch and see if this is something they really want to do. And if they are hired after that, training is everything. I mean, it's all about training, especially, I'd say, you know, training in the front of the house about, you know, from how you open the door, how you greet somebody, how you answer the phone, to how you say goodbye to somebody when they're leaving Marcel's and saying they just dropped $500 for two people.
WIEDMAIERYou know, you've got to be able to - they have to walk out of there going, wow, what an experience. And if you don't have people trained properly on that floor to make the proper decisions at the time they need to take them, you've got problems.
WIEDMAIERIt's the same thing in the kitchen. You just can't throw a cook into a position, and say, okay, this is how we make it, and here's the recipe. I mean, it's got to be over and over through repetition about how to make this bordelaise sauce until they get it right. So training's essential, and it's not easy.
NNAMDIChris Floyd, here's an email we got from Carolyn. "What kind of an academic background does a new young chef need to be hired? A bachelor's degree? A diploma from the Culinary Institute of America? I have a teenaged grandson who is interested in a career in the culinary arts."
FLOYDWell, I think there are really two approaches. I would encourage anybody looking to get into the field to go and work somewhere for six months or a year before paying all the money that culinary schools cost. And of course there are different schools and different costs. I happened to go to CIA which I'll say as an alumni is the best, but it also will put you in a deep hole after graduating from there, and it's not necessary to succeed in the industry.
FLOYDIt provides a nice sort of backdrop of basis of knowledge that's very helpful. I found it very helpful. I paid for it, so I was very focused when I went. But it doesn't necessarily guarantee success. I mean, in my class, I think after two years half the people weren't even in the industry anymore. So, you know, you can sort of learn through the school of hard knocks, a combination of the two, but a culinary degree does not make you a chef in any way, shape, or form, and, you know, you need to go out there and put in the hours and put in the hard work.
FLOYDI mean, these are skilled positions. Knife skills are like any, you know, repetitive exercise. You get better at them the more you do them. Learning how to cook on a line, and you can't manage people, you can't become a sous chef or a chef and tell those other people what they're going to need to do if you can't do it yourself. So, you know, the sort of funny thing is, is yeah, the industry is much more popular now, and, you know, I recruit from culinary schools, and, you know, I always ask these kids when they're coming out, well, how much do you expect to make when you get out?
FLOYDAnd they sort of look at me with wide eyes, and they hadn't really thought about that, and then they start adding up how much debt they're in, and they say well, you know, 50 or $60,000, and I just look at them and I laugh, and I say look, you're probably going to be making 10 to $12 an hour somewhere. And, you know, I've got sous chefs who have four or five years practical experience on you who are making $45,000. So, you know...
NNAMDIWell, let me move to another issue and ask our listeners, what level of service do you expect at local restaurants? What do you think of the quality of the food at the restaurants opening up in the District today? Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Jessica, many D.C. diners have come to expect a certain level of service and quality of food when they visit a new restaurant. So from the diner's perspective, what do you think this labor shortage looks like?
SIDMANSure. Well, I think because restaurants really need staff, they're hiring a lot of people with less experience. You know, maybe in the past, you know, you needed to have a certain amount of time and experience. Maybe now to be a server all you need is to have worked at summer camp. So the onus now is on the restaurants to step up their training, and a lot of them have. They spend far more time on training. But if they don't, you are likely going to have less professional service, and, you know, just with the shortage of staff, you know, if a restaurant's understaffed you might have slower service. And I think, you know, speed and quality go for the kitchen as well.
NNAMDIMichael, how does D.C. Central Kitchen train people to meet quality standards in some of the restaurants in Washington's food scene?
CURTIN JR.Well, as Chris mentioned, half of our program has nothing to do with culinary. It is all these other skills that are going to allow our graduates to fit in and be -- and honestly be molded by the chefs in the restaurants that they're going to be working with. We -- just as Chris said, if you graduated from the CIA you're not a chef. Folks who graduate from our program are not -- we're not training chefs, we're training cooks, and we're training basic skills, knife skills, speed, efficiency, sense of urgency, sense of purpose.
CURTIN JR.Preparing those men and woman, and not only their hands but their minds to be open to folks like Robert and many of the others in town that are giving them opportunities so that they're willing participants in the process. And I think that -- if we can get the basic skills, and then let the pros take people and teach them their way. Even if you graduated from the CIA and you go to work for Robert, he's going to teach you a different way to do something then you probably learned in class, or any one of the other chefs, and that's the way it should be.
CURTIN JR.So we're training these real basic skills, but really importantly the open minds and this idea that this is indeed a service business. We are in here to serve others, to provide pleasure for others. That's what you're getting into, and a lot of what we talk about in the class is just that.
NNAMDIYou mean, it's not an entry-level chef position where you get to yell at people from the very first day? I guess not. We're...
CURTIN JR.That comes way down the road.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation about local restaurants and staff shortages, but if you've called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. We still have a couple of lines open at 800-433-8850. Why do you think local restaurants are having trouble finding qualified servers or cooks? You can send us an email to email@example.com, or a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about local restaurants and the staff shortages that they are facing. We're talking with Robert Weidmaier. He is chef and owner of several restaurants in this area including Marcel's, Brasserie Beck, and Brabo. Chris Floyd is the founder of Capital Restaurant Resources. That's a recruiting agency for local and national restaurants. Jessica Sidman is food editor and Young and Hungry columnist for the Washington City Paper. She recently wrote about the problem about restaurant staff shortages.
NNAMDIAnd Michael Curtain is chief executive officer at DC Central Kitchen, where that organization offers a culinary job training program. Michael joins us by telephone. Robert, Jessica, if restaurants are opening up so fast that there aren't enough people to work in them, some might start to wonder how much longer can D.C.'s dining scene sustain the kind of growth it's been having?
SIDMANWell, one thing that's interesting, Kojo, is there doesn't seem to be a shortage of people eating at the restaurants.
NNAMDII've noticed that.
SIDMANYou know, it's impossible to get a reservation anywhere on 14th Street on a Tuesday night. And you have, I believe it's a thousand people coming -- moving into D.C. every month. The number of visitors coming to D.C. has increased, and the amount of money they're spending eating out has increased. So it's just, you know, the demand seems to be there for now. We'll see how long it lasts.
WIEDMAIEROh, I think, you know, and I said this I think (unintelligible) I said, you know, D.C.'s on fire when it comes to the hospitality industry. I mean, all of my restaurants have just gone up, up, up, in the numbers that we do, in the revenues that we do. I feel very fortunate to be in Washington D.C. I mean, it's a great city, and that's why we're seeing everybody come here to open up restaurants, because during the recession, Kojo, you know, D.C. came out smelling like a rose.
WIEDMAIERYou know. And everybody saw that, you know. I mean, I remember hiring people during the recession and still negotiating a contract to open up another restaurant during the recession here, in all that, you know, bad economic times. The rest of the country was not seeing that. So you're seeing D.C. is a rock solid market for businesses for come into, and they are coming.
NNAMDIChris, I was going to ask you if you have any recommendations for how chefs and restaurant owners can get through this difficult hiring period, but instead, I'm going to have Shaun in Washington be even more specific. Shaun, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHAUNHi, Kojo. I'm one of the folks who owns a local food truck here in the city, and we're a little bit different. We're an all organic, locally sourced truck, and we -- in the past year and a half have gone through six different kitchen managers/sous chefs, who some of whom have come from the CIA, and others from some of the top restaurants in the city, and the majority of them are lacking work ethic and primarily basic skills. And I'm trying to find a way for best hiring practices, and I'd love your comments.
FLOYDWell, I mean, obviously you can hire a recruiting firm like us. I think we have a great team. But...
NNAMDII'm sorry. I shouldn't have given him that one.
FLOYDBut -- no. But honestly, we're so busy that we're actually turning away clients right now because we literally don't have enough sous chefs and good managers to fill all these positions, and I don't want to take on a client whom I'm going to disappoint. So we've been focused on our loyal restaurant groups that have been around in D.C. for years.
FLOYDBut I think there's a few things that I'm sometimes surprised that people don't do. First and foremost being they don't check references. It's amazing to me how many times I'll hear of somebody getting hired and say, oh, my God, I can't believe they hired that person because I know something about them or our team knows something about them. I mean, if the walls in our office could talk, I mean, we'd know a lot about a lot of people's history -- work histories.
FLOYDAnd, you know, and the second thing I would do, what Robert does with his people is bring them in. Have them work with you for a couple of days or even a week. Let both sides get a feel for what this job is going to entail, and what this person is will to go bring to the table. You know, I think for the young people out there, attitude is everything whether you're going for a front of the house position, or back of the house. You know, it's work ethic in the back and being willing to learn and being willing to coach, and in the front of the house, I mean, you just got to be nice.
FLOYDI mean, we were talking about the -- how the service is, and I'll forgive a lot of, you know, if my proper fork isn't on the table, if somebody's nice to me.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of that, and Shaun good luck with your hiring process. Speaking of the work ethic, and people coming into the business, I think that's what Felicia in Washington D.C. wants to talk about. Felicia, your turn.
FELICIAYes. I was very surprised and feel you're tiptoeing around that issue of work ethic and preparing students to move into just the front of the house. That they don't understand how to be gracious. They don't have basic fundamental good manners. So that when if a customer may make a complaint they take it personally and give them attitude. They don't dress appropriately, even when they're in uniform sometimes. So how do you change that ethic? How...
NNAMDIHere is Robert Weidmaier.
WIEDMAIERThat's a great, great observation and comment. Yes. It's horrifying when I go out to some restaurants on the service side of it and see A, how they're dressed, B, they don't smile. They're not, you know, they're not being very subservient to the client. They're there to serve them and help them and guide them. You see it all the time, and it always makes me wonder, don't they understand they work for tips, you know? It's like, you know, if I smile and I'm gracious and I'm nice, they're probably going to give me a better tip.
WIEDMAIERBut it seems to be across the board that's the type of service we see. Not all the time. I've had great service too. But you see a lot of what you just described, and I think -- and a lot of it just has to be with people just don't care, and it's sad.
FLOYDWell, I know, many of my clients -- I know many of our clients now, you know, especially for the front of the house positions are really hiring on personality, you know, and everybody wants the young hip cool person, but nice. Again, it counts for a long way, and they can train people. I mean, part of the problem for some of, you know, the people in, you know, our less socioeconomically developed region of the city is, they don't have any cultural experience going to nice restaurants, so to have them work in these nice restaurants, they kind of don't get it.
FLOYDAnd so some of that can be trained, but some of that is just, you know, where you grew up. And so that's a hard thing to teach.
NNAMDIThank you, Felicia. I think Cece in Waldorf, Md. wants to piggyback on that. Cece, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CECEOh, thank you for my call, Kojo. Love your show. Listen, guys. That last caller hit it on the nail. You all of kind of, you know, as far as the care and concern. I've worked in restaurants, and I know what it means to have excellent communication skills and customer service. A lot of people just don't care. They don't get it. There's an expectation of the restaurateur. There's an expectation of the client. When I come in, I'm giving you about an hour to two hours of my time, and I'm expecting a great dining experience.
CECEHow sometimes the server is so harried, there's so much going on that he or she really can't do their best, and I'll talk to them. Just the other day, what are you getting, what are you doing in tips, how long have you been here. We're on a 12-hour shift. I used to work at a local restaurant. I started as a server, bumped up to bartender prior to going into management, coming out of the education field, so I definitely understood customer service and communication.
NNAMDINow you sound like you're doing your most difficult job of all, being a mother.
CECEYes, I am. This little one wants to talk as well.
NNAMDII can hear that. But thank you very much for sharing that with us. I'm glad she brought up bartender, because we got an email from Elizabeth, Robert. "Are bartenders in demand?" And an email from Tom who said, "I was a bartender for many years before I got a real job. I worked at the finest hotels and bars in D.C. I made a very good living. I earned almost the same money as I do in my IT job."
WIEDMAIERYeah. Bartending, or we should say now, mixologist...
NNAMDIYes. Thank you.
FLOYDNo, you shouldn't say that.
WIEDMAIERYou know, or we should say foodie or farm to table, or all those other things out there, organic and sustainable and everything else. But bartenders, I mean, that's a great job if you're really good at it and have great communication skills and, you know, know how to make great drinks, and that's hard to find. I mean, that's extremely hard to find. I mean, I'm constantly looking for great bartenders that can look people in the eyes with a smile, take the drink properly, make it beautifully, and constantly have that interaction at the bar, because a bar diner is different than a diner that's sitting in the dining room. They want to have that engagement with the bartender.
FLOYDThat's right. And you can make these fancy drinks and be a mixologist, but you need to have a personality. I mean, to me, a great bartender is somebody who's fast, efficient and friendly, can crack a joke, and be engaged. And I bartended and, you know, I -- it's so annoying if you're at a busy bar and you can't even, like the bartender won't even make eye contact with you. Even if, you know, they know you're trying to get a drink, just say, hey, I'll be with you in a second or something.
NNAMDIWe're just about out of time, and I knew that because Robert happens to be sitting in the incredible sinking chair, and you sank, and that's usually the signal that we've come to the end of this broadcast. Michael Curtain, good to hear you again. Thank you so much for joining us.
CURTIN JR.Thank you, Kojo. It's always a pleasure.
NNAMDIMichael Curtain is chief executive officer at D.C. Central Kitchen, where it offers a culinary job training program. Chris Floyd, thank you for joining us.
FLOYDThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIChris Floyd is founder of Capital Restaurant Resources. a recruiting agency for local and national restaurants. Robert Weidmaier, great to see you.
WIEDMAIERThank you very much, Kojo.
NNAMDIRobert is a chef and owner of several restaurants in the Washington area including Marcel's, Brasserie Beck, and Brabo. Jessica Sidman, thank you for joining us. Thank you for doing that article.
SIDMANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJessica is a food editor and Young and Hungry columnist for the Washington Paper. The article I was referring to is when she wrote about the problem of restaurant staff shortages, which gave us the idea for this broadcast. The check's in the mail. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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