According to the individuals referenced in the article the reasons are spread across the board. Here are some of the points made:
A natural response to a labor shortage is “pay more”. Not that easy in the restaurant industry as profits are very thin already. 4-6% according to the article. Payroll already accounts for 24% of net profits.
At this point there’s just no wiggle room without a price increase to consumers. It’s coming because soon minimum wage hikes will take care of the pay increase for restaurant owners. There will be no choice other than raise prices.
Long before the first lunch customer walks through the door, cooks at Grissini in Englewood Cliffs are hard at work.
Angelo Chimbo’s hands are a blur as he flicks at baby carrots with a red peeler. Behind him, Ismael Rodrigues feeds sheets of golden dough into a pasta machine, where it is cut into narrow tagliatelle. And chef Giuseppe Lentini deftly slices bits of fat off deep-pink hunks of filet mignon.
Workers like these are the “backbone” of the restaurant industry, said maitre d’ Michael De Vincenzi.
But chefs, as well as the waiters and waitresses who deliver their creations to the table, are becoming harder to find. According to a recent survey by the National Restaurant Association, more than half of restaurant owners find it a challenge to find and keep good workers.
A lot of it is simply supply and demand.
Americans eat out more these days, spending 43 cents of every food dollar away from home, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The economy is good, and people are spending more money than ever in the hospitality industry. We’re living in an area that’s saturated with restaurants,” said Michael Latour of Latour, a 17-year-old French restaurant in Ridgewood. “There aren’t enough workers to support them all.”
Restaurants can be lively, creative and glamorous places to work — for cooks who are passionate about food, and for extroverts who enjoy dealing with the public in the dining room. But the industry is defined by long hours, low pay and high pressure. And an improving job market means that workers have other options.
Even restaurant owners and managers will acknowledge the challenges of the work.
“If you’re a chef at a restaurant like mine, you’ve got to work six days a week, lunch and dinner,” said Tony Del Gatto, who owns the Westmount Country Club in Woodland Park, in addition to the 90-seat Grissini. “What kind of home life can you have?”
“It’s at least a 12-hour day,” said De Vincenzi. “You have to be born to do this work.”
Recently at Latour, waiter Ricardo DaSilva of Union, a 21-year-old student at Seton Hall University, started his day at 11 a.m., before the lunch crowd arrived, and expected to stay until the last dinner customer left — probably around 10 p.m.
During those long shifts, staff members are on their feet, whether they’re chefs or waiters. Inside the kitchen, the pace can be frenetic; the space, hot and crowded.
“It’s 100 degrees sometimes in the kitchen,” Latour said.
In the dining room, the heat sometimes comes from unhappy customers who expect a server to make things right.
And the pay scales are low.
According to the National Restaurant Association, median wages nationwide for restaurant workers range from a low of $8 an hour for dishwashers to a high of $19.35 for bartenders. Chefs are paid a median $12 an hour and waiters and waitresses about $16, with tips.
“People come out of the Culinary Institute of America with a lot of debt, and they’re not paying it off at $12 an hour,” said Christine Nunn, chef and co-owner of Picnic on the Square in Ridgewood. She has kept most of her kitchen staff through her tenure in three restaurants, but she’s looking for servers.
On a recent busy night, short of servers, Nunn had to work in the dining room. “I was hosting, I was bussing tables, I was pouring water,” she said.
Immigration a factor
Other analysts have pointed to a slowdown in immigration to the U.S. since the recession, because immigrants traditionally make up a significant share of restaurant workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11 percent of Hispanic workers are employed in hotels and restaurants.
Another issue in North Jersey is that workers who live in less affluent areas sometimes struggle to find transportation to restaurant jobs in the suburbs.
According to the National Restaurant Association, 318,800 people in New Jersey, and about 14 million nationwide, work in restaurants. The industry has been adding jobs faster than the economy as a whole, according to the association.
The shortage of workers has forced restaurant operators to spend more time recruiting and training new employees, and to ask current employees to take on extra tasks — for example, a busboy substituting for a line cook when needed.
So, if there’s a shortage of workers, why don’t restaurants just bump up the paychecks?
The answer: They can’t afford to.
Profit margins average 4 percent to 6 percent at restaurants, according to the restaurant association. Payroll amounts to about 24 percent of restaurants’ net profits, a percentage that hasn’t changed much over the years, according to Sageworks, a financial analysis company.
“They work on a very thin profit margin,” said Dave Cohen, coordinator of the hotel-restaurant hospitality program at Bergen Community College. “You’re not putting 50 cents on the dollar into your pocket in the restaurant business.”
You might expect the Food Network’s shows about celebrity chefs would draw more people to the industry, but restaurant owners complain they paint an unrealistic picture.
No fast track
“Everybody thinks they can go to culinary school and immediately be a Food Network star,” said Nunn from Picnic on the Square. “Even with a degree, you take that $12-an-hour job and work 50 or 60 hours a week so you really learn how to be a chef.”
Cohen said that some culinary graduates would rather work in catering or even in supermarkets, which have shorter, more predictable hours.
Still, those who choose restaurants say they like the fast pace, the interaction with colleagues and customers and, in the case of chefs, the chance to work creatively with food.
“It’s a very expressive thing; it’s a reflection of your passion for food,” Latour said.
De Vincenzi, the maitre d’, was asked whether he likes his job better when the restaurant is quiet or crowded.
“Packed,” he said. “I want to be busy. I want it to be hectic. I like the stress. It’s all adrenaline.” He once thought of becoming an accountant, but after one day of a summer internship in college, he knew he didn’t want to sit at a desk.
Many restaurant workers are students looking for part-time work and flexible hours. The restaurant industry employs 1.5 million teenagers between 16 and 19 — or one-third of all working teens in the nation, according to the restaurant association’s figures.
Da Silva, the Latour waiter, said he is an extrovert who likes to talk to customers. The philosophy student said every customer “has something to teach you.”
“They’ll say something that catches your attention,” he said.
Other restaurant workers also say the relationship with diners is one of the best parts of the job. Victor Molina of West New York, a waiter who has worked for 10 years at Grissini, said he is gratified that some of the restaurant’s regulars ask for him by name.
“They know you and they trust you,” he said.
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