Jobletics founder and president Rahul Sharma (far left) with the owner of La Casias Bakery (a Jobletics partner) and co-founder Jad Chahine

Staffing is one of the biggest challenges in running a successful restaurant, and in recent years the gap between open positions and qualified workers has widened. The situation has gotten to the point where the shortage has been called everything from “crippling” to “plaguing” to a full-blown crisis.

But this is 2017, so guess what? There’s an app for that.

Jobletics, which launched two years ago in Boston and is expanding to Philadelphia as its second city next week, has been called “the Uber of restaurant staffing.”

The comparison is somewhat apt. The platform offers an on-demand labor force, connecting hospitality companies in need of workers with people in need of work. When restaurants could use an extra hand — whether it’s because a regular employee took an unexpected sick day or a big catering job is coming up — they post on the service, which then matches them with a person ready to fill in where needed, either front or back of the house.

Philly will be the company’s sophomore market because of its bustling restaurant landscape, Jobletics founder and president Rahul Sharma told Billy Penn. “It’s densely populated and it’s got an up-and-coming food scene. It caught our attention.”

He appears to have tapped a pent-up desire. Several Philly businesses have already created Jobletics accounts, Sharma said — “there’s already a waiting list.” Peter Hwang, proprietor of Rittenhouse Korean gastropub Southgate, isn’t one of them, but on hearing of the impending launch, he immediately expressed interest.

“There’s a high amount of turnover in our industry,” Hwang said. “Anywhere we could get competent people at quick notice is probably a good resource. Line cooks are tough [positions to keep filled], so are dishwashers. Even things like hostesses — there’s a lot of turnover.”

Despite the easy-to-grasp comparison to Uber, Jobletics’ business model is different. Where the ride-sharing giant has been vilified for taking advantage of its independent contractor drivers monetarily and for deflecting legal responsibility for interactions that take place during trips, those issues don’t apply to Jobletics.

“We heard the drawbacks of the gig economy” and built a company that addressed them, said Sharma, who’s 33 years old. “We’re the gig economy 2.0.

On the worker side, that means everyone who signs on becomes a full-fledged employee — unfortunately termed a “Joblete” — complete with W-2 status (taxes are automatically deducted) and benefits like workers comp and liability insurance. (Health care is not currently offered, but is in the near-future plans, per Sharma.) In the Boston area, the Jobletics workforce is currently hundreds of people strong. The incentive to join is the potential for flexible part-time work with many of the perks of full-time employment.

“If someone needed extra cash, they could pick up a shift at a restaurant instead of driving Uber,” suggested Steve Harrell, who’s leading the company’s push into Philly. Harrell got involved with Jobletics after becoming familiar with the industry’s problem points during his two years as GM for Caviar delivery service’s East Coast operations.

“I had been thinking about starting a company that did [on-demand staffing] for a while,” Harrell said. “When I researched it I found out there was this company in Massachusetts taking it to the next level.”

There are a few other apps that offer similar services, but Jobletics is one of the most successful. It currently has more than 200 Boston-area restaurant partners, which range from mom-and-pop cafes and independent fine-dining spots to catering firms and hotel management chains.

Harrell gave several examples of occasions on which these employers turn to the service:

  • If they need someone to fill a shift at the last-minute
  • If they need part-timers who come in once a week every week to cover a night that’s always busier than others, but don’t want to deal with the associated paperwork and costs of getting someone new on the books
  • If they want to book more catering jobs but don’t want to expand their staff just for that

One of the first questions restaurants have is about the quality of the workforce, Harrell said. To employers asking “Who ARE these workers, even, and why should we trust they’ll know what they’re doing,” Jobletics offers this stat: Of every 100 people who apply, only eight or 10 are accepted.

“We have a very rigorous, high-touch vetting process,” Sharma explained. Among other things, there’s a background check and an in-person interview. Many of the back-of-the-house Jobletics workers have even graduated from culinary school, he noted, but may be looking for more hands-on experience and a chance to refine their skills on the job. “Think of us as the modern-day stage!” Sharma said, referring to the custom of short-term kitchen apprenticing.

Another big concern on the restaurant side — perhaps the most critical one — is cost.

“Most temp agencies have a really high markup,” noted Southgate’s Hwang. “And that’s of course how the company makes money. That’s what will make or break this idea. If this ends up being something a restaurant would have to pay upwards of $25 an hour, well, then only people like Stephen Starr will use it.”

A look at Boston-area Jobletics partners shows it’s certainly not used exclusively by big-name restaurateurs. The company wouldn’t release its commission fee or pinpoint what hourly rates it charges for various positions, but Sharma insists that the amounts are reasonable and right in line with industry standards. “We’ve done our legwork,” he said. If the rate happens to be slightly higher than what a restaurant usually pays, that’s countered by the fact that there are no associated onboarding or payroll costs or time suck. Nor the costs associated with recruiting or HR.

Can “temp” employees really slot seamlessly into a new operation without going through the regular training required for most full-time staff? That’s the worry expressed by George Reilly, owner of The Twisted Tail on Headhouse Square.

“It takes my employees usually around two weeks to be properly trained in all the info, product knowledge, steps of service and branding to be successful and provide the proper level of customer service,” Reilly said. “Even a very experienced server, for example, may be able to come in for a night and get by — but getting by is not what we do, nor our goal for guest satisfaction.”

To address that point, Harrell noted that many restaurants create a workaround — bringing in a Joblete as a food runner, for example, so that an experienced server can take a bigger station because of the extra backup help.

However, because of the above, when it comes to front of house positions, Jobletics is especially suited to catering. That’s what the company sees as its bread and butter. “Think of the Aramarks and Sodexos,” Harrel said, citing two of the biggest corporate food service providers in the country. “They have budgets of like $2 million a year for temp staffing.”

But plenty of smaller operations have taken advantage of Jobletics to grow their catering businesses, or even launch a catering arm if they didn’t have one before. Munish Narula, operator of the Tiffin mini-chain of Indian dining establishments, sees that as the most probable reason he’d sign up to use the service.

“You always have someone call out or get sick or go on vacation — you don’t want to replace someone if they’re only going to be gone for one or two weeks,” Narula said. “I would definitely explore this for off-site, because that is unpredictable and doesn’t require deep knowledge of our POS system or what ingredients are in our food.”

The official launch of Jobletics in Philly is set for Monday, July 31. The good news for interested Philly restaurateurs is that Boston is already jealous of the high grade of our labor force.

“We’ve been joking in our office, ‘Can we import some of these folks to Boston?’ The quality of folks there is so great,” said Sharma, who grew up in the Bay Area and came east to attend grad school at Northeastern University. “We’re very happy with how Philadelphia is shaping up.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...