More than 1 in 10 jobs in Philly are food-related — and the industry is still growing

A new report quantified the city’s booming scene for the first time.

rosystacos-creditdanyahenninger-04crop
Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

Food is big in Philadelphia. That’s not a secret, but for the first time in history, we know just how big.

Close to 80,000 people are currently employed in a food-related job, making up 12% of the Philly’s total workforce, according to a new report. That means more than 1 in 10 employed Philadelphians are in the food industry.

The info comes from a year-long project by the Health Department and the Economy League to quantify the restaurant industry’s growing contribution to the Philly landscape.

It confirms what folks here already know: that the dining and grocery scene in Philly is on an expansion tear. Every year, the city sees roughly 1,000 new food establishments open their doors, according to the report.

“It’s long been anecdotally known that Philadelphia has a blossoming food economy,” Mohona Siddique, a researcher with the Economy League, told Billy Penn. “What was truly surprising about this research was quantifying just how vast it is, how fast-growing it is, and how inextricable it is from the growth of our city’s economy as a whole.”

The information wasn’t easy to come by. It took a year full of interviews, surveys, focus groups and analysis to wrangle the data, per Siddique.

“The food economy is so fast-moving, and has many parts,” Siddique said. “And in that fast-paced ecosystem, it’s hard for business owners, employees, and stakeholders to meet their own needs, let alone [answer our questions].”

What else did the report find? Here’s a quick overview with what you need to know.

It gives back a ton to the city

Philly’s food returns $66.3 million in annual wage tax revenue. That’s roughly 4% of the city’s total wage tax take.

But the jobs don’t pay much

The deluge of food service work here doesn’t require highly specialized skills. That means the barrier to entry is low, and the jobs are accessible — but they mostly pay low wages.

In Philadelphia, the vast majority compensate their employees with just $20,000 per year. Some pay as much as $40,000 annually, fewer reach $60k and almost none provide a salary of $70,000 per year.

That means there’s a lot of turnover

Food and hospitality workers tell Billy Penn that the low compensation fuels frequent job vacancies and high staff turnover.

“The quality of life is so shitty…in regards to pay, hours, stress, that they are always either seeking escape with drugs or seeking escape in job hopping,” said a back-of-house restaurant worker in response to a Billy Penn survey.

Business owners are struggling too

The new data show business owners are struggling, too. Roughly 95% of Philadelphia’s eateries are small businesses — meaning 50 employees or fewer. By and large, they mostly operate on razor-thin margins.

Compared to big biz, they’ve got less time for planning and fewer resources. The report shows smaller restaurants have less access to capital, and they’ve usually got to dip into their savings or use credit cards when presented with an unexpected expense.

With less cash on hand, they struggle to pay their employees well enough to stay.

“As an employer, my biggest challenge is not having enough revenue throughout the year to keep on staff,” a restaurant owner responded. “We may have someone great for a season, but then we die down and they move on.”

They added: “Getting paid in cash sounds great when you’re young, until you want to buy a house and don’t have employment history.”

Thanks for reading another Billy Penn story

Seems you’re the kind of person who really digs in. Want more? Sign up for our free morning newsletter, the easy way to stay on top of Philly news.

Thanks for reading Billy Penn

Like the story above, everything we publish is powered by our members. If you enjoy reading, join today: Just $5/month makes more difference than you’d think.

Thanks for reading! We need you.

Reader donations power our newsroom. If Billy Penn helps you feel more connected to Philly, we’d love to count you as a member. Will you join us?

Lock in your support

Reader support powers our newsroom. A monthly membership helps lock it in.

Can we count on you as a Billy Penn sustainer?

Winning the local journalism game

Thank you: Member support powers our newsroom.

Know someone else who might like our work? Invite them to sign up for our free morning newsletter.