Kitchen work is usually far from glamorous, and the pay pretty much sucks

Kitchen work is usually far from glamorous, and the pay pretty much sucks

Danya Henninger

Fink’s Hoagies and the kitchen problem plaguing Philly’s best restaurants

Brother, can you work the line?

Fink’s Hoagies in Center City closed its doors last week. The reason, according to owner Dennis Fink? In all of Philadelphia, he couldn’t find two people qualified enough to make his sandwiches.

Fink had suspended operation at the Jeweler’s Row branch of his popular Northeast Philly shop the month prior, when he’d fired one underperforming employee and had another quit on the very same day, he told Philly.com. At the time, a note on the door indicated he was searching for replacements and would reopen when he found them. Twenty-one days later, he threw in the towel and shuttered the location for good.

Could it really be that over the course of three weeks, he couldn’t find anyone up to snuff?

Maybe. Fink declined to be interviewed for this story. Many in the Philly restaurant industry privately expressed doubt about that particular situation. “It’s just hoagies!” was a common refrain.

However, even those who were skeptical couldn’t help but commiserate. Finding good kitchen staff has always been one of the toughest parts about running a restaurant. Now, thanks to a confluence of factors, the problem appears to be getting worse.

“I’m having trouble finding people who will just show up for their interview,” says Joe Cicala, chef and co-owner at Italian pizza and beer bar Brigantessa on East Passyunk. “If I have confirmed interviews with 10 potential candidates, something like three of them will show up.”

It’s not an issue at Cicala’s other restaurant, Abruzzese fine dining destination Le Virtu, where the staff has been pretty much steady for the past six years. But at the new spot, there’s been near constant turnover ever since it opened two years ago. Scroll back through the restaurant’s twitter feed and you’ll find a near-weekly plea for applicants, especially to fill back-of house positions.

Brigantessa is not alone.

Nor is Philadelphia an outlier. Other cities, from Pittsburgh to San Francisco to Green Bay, Wisconsin, are also feeling the crunch. But with our booming restaurant scene now accounting for a good portion of the economy — one in four real estate transactions in Philly are hospitality driven, per a recent Inquirer report — the stakes are especially high.

Food Network culture

The glut of restaurants is one of the factors contributing to the problem, says Michael Schulson, chef and principal of MJS Restaurants.

With last week’s launch of Harp & Crown, a palatial, urban-chic bar and restaurant on Sansom Street, Schulson’s restaurant group now employs upwards of 700 people. It’s a huge roster to keep full, and Schulson insists he does it by sucessfully fostering good company culture. Still, he laments the days when it was easier to hire and retain cooks.

“Now there are so many spots that a worker with a couple years experience — someone who’d be a line cook at one of my places — can get hired as a ‘chef’ or ‘sous-chef’ somewhere else,” he says. “After that, they’re not going to want to come back to work the line.”

It’s not just that there are more places to work, notes Marc Vetri. There’s been a general shift in restaurant culture. Whether it’s because of the Food Network-led glorification of “celebrity chefs” or because they’ve just spent close to a hundred thousand dollars on fancy culinary school, the majority of talented young aspirants don’t seem willing to put in hard time anymore.

“When I was coming up,” Vetri says, “you just took whatever job you were offered, and tried to learn as much as you could to move up to the next positions.”

Peel veggies all day? That's part of learning how to be a chef

Peel veggies all day? That's part of learning how to be a chef

Danya Henninger

He personally remembers days and weeks on end spent doing menial tasks like chopping broccoli or peeling garlic. It was only after years of working his way up the ladder that he finally landed a position as head of a kitchen, then saved up enough cash to open a place of his own.

Tradition vs. wage theft

Cicala went through a similar arduous climb to get where he is today.

“Back in the day you would stage for months before they would even consider hiring you,” he says, referring to the French-born custom of being a stagiaire, basically an unpaid intern who works for free order to gain access and pick up skills and knowledge.

The practice is dying out, in large part because it’s illegal. What old-school chefs call a stage, others call wage theft. Just last month, news broke that Stephen Starr-owned Talula’s Garden was being investigated for such a charge. Multiple line cooks alleged they were told to show up by 11 a.m., but not clock in until 3. The Department of Labor is looking into the claims.

Hot, sweaty and on your feet for hours at a time

Hot, sweaty and on your feet for hours at a time

Danya Henninger

Asking that kind of sacrifice from kitchen workers looking to advance their careers used to be de rigueur. But there’s a new normal, now.

“Restaurant jobs used to be something you fell into,” Cicala says. “Where you went when you had no other options — and then you get hooked. Now more people are going to school for it.”

He bemoans the disappearance of real apprenticeships, the paid kind. “There’s no more latching onto a particular chef and being proud to work for and learn from them,” he continues. “A lot of folks just want to fast-track to the title and make a salary.”

…and low pay

In other words, cooking for an hourly wage has lost its appeal.

That’s especially true because overall unemployment is low — Philadelphia’s rate has been hovering between 6 and 8 percent. That’s higher than the national average, which has dipped below 5 percent, but still a lot better than the previous half-decade’s double-digit unemployment.

And when you compare the pay rate of kitchen jobs to other industries, the lack of interest is no big surprise.

Current median hourly wage for food prep and service jobs in Philadelphia is $9.46, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s two-thirds the median rate for maintenance and cleaning jobs and half what administrative office positions pay. People in media or education can expect to make triple that, on average. And don’t even try to compare wages in the restaurant industry to the take-home from high-end white collar jobs.

“I just had this amazing cook leave (Brigantessa),” Cicala says. “He was really, really good, lots of potential. But he had gone to school for finance, and he finally got a position in that world. So he’s gone.”

A pay raise?

Conventional wisdom would say raising the pay rate should fix the labor issue. Supply of kitchen workers is low, demand is high, so prices (wages) should go up.

But for restaurateurs working with already razor-slim margins, it’s not that simple.

“Payroll in general is the largest expense in running a restaurant,” Cicala explains. “If you can control that, you’ll have success. Food costs are secondary, then everything else.”

Joe Cicala needs someone to help him make these pizzas

Joe Cicala needs someone to help him make these pizzas

Danya Henninger

Would boosting wages be that detrimental? Quite possibly.

In advance of a possible federally mandated minimum wage hike, Silicon Valley money management startup Homebase commissioned a study. Looking specifically at Philadelphia, it found that if restaurants here were forced to pay $12 per hour across the board, 40 percent of them would be at risk of closing. And if the mandatory wage jumped to $15, more than three-quarters of Philly restaurants would be set-up to fail.

Homebase came up with a stop-gap solution of sorts, kind of a crowdsourced reversal of trickle-down economics.

It invites people to visit a website and pledge to spend a little extra each month on dining out. If Philly diners bought $18 more worth of restaurant food — a couple extra appetizers, or another round of beers — it would generate enough overall revenue to support a $12 hourly wage, per the study. If the average Philadelphia ponied up $36 more each month, the $15 wage would be totally fine.

Nice idea. But if that pipe dream doesn’t pan out, what are Philly restaurant owners to do?

For his part, Marc Vetri doesn’t know, but he’s eager to figure it out.

“The paradigm is changing, so we’ll adapt,” he says. “It’s either adapt or die.”

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