The kitchen staff crisis: What can be done about it?

Oct 20, 2022
min read

When it comes to finding and keeping great kitchen staff – a challenge that’s reached near crisis levels in some areas in recent years – the restaurant industry faces a hard and simple truth: wages are too low, the hours are too long, and yet, costs for restaurants continue to increase alongside inflation.

To get more insight into what restaurants are doing to combat this issue and what’s ahead for an industry driven by so much competition, we spoke with Michael Cipollo, chef and founder at Local Restaurants Inc., and Scott Sinclair, a seasoned restaurant consultant and recruiter with Gecko Hospitality.

Good staff are hard to find.

When the time came to hire a few more staff members for the back of house –  and that time always seems to come sooner than later – Cipollo and his partners would track down the same advertisement from the last time they were hiring. This is what would typically happen:  

“We’d get a lot of applicants, but we couldn’t get a hold of them. Or, we’d schedule a time to meet but they wouldn’t show up for the interview,” says Cipollo.

The alternative? There would be an impressive amount of applicants for a position (e.g. line cook) but few, if any, were actually qualified.

This got us thinking: is it because of the money?

As someone who works in the kitchen at a restaurant, you’re likely toiling over hot stoves with sharp objects at high speeds for long hours (say…10, 11 or more hours at a time), and leave with about $100 toward your paycheque.

“Depending on where you’re working, servers can make two times more than back of house staff. And yet, back of house jobs require more skill and sweat equity. There’s also more risks – cuts, sprains and strains,” says Cipollo. “People don’t want to do this anymore. The money’s just not there.”

And yet, in many cases, it hasn’t been there for a while: “Cooks are paid the same today as they were 15 years ago,” says Cipollo, an industry veteran who worked for a chain for nearly 15 years before breaking out on his own.

Depending on the position and the location, generally, kitchen staff make a jump above minimum wage, somewhere between $15.50 and $16.68/hour on average in Canada.

Sinclair, who worked for one of Canada’s largest restaurant chains for decades before becoming a consultant, says what you have to wonder is, “…Why is your staff leaving a job that’s $15.50 an hour to go make $16 across the street? Is it really about that 50 cents difference?” 

Or is it about something else?

The pay is the easiest thing to point to. We’ve all heard it before: “I don’t get paid enough to do what I’m doing.”

The nine days of working in a row. 

The long 13 hour days.

The “no weekends off.”

The kitchen manager who doesn’t acknowledge good, hard work.

“If they took those things out, gave them better leadership, better work-life balance, pay probably wouldn’t be an issue, but it’s hard for people to articulate or they don’t want to point fingers at the boss. So they just say, ‘I don’t get paid enough,’” says Sinclair.

So how can you combat poor pay or culture challenges?

When Cipollo’s team decided there’s got to be a better way, that they had to try something different, they decided to include the wage amount in their job ads. And it was a wage noticeably, but not significantly, higher than other kitchens.

“Suddenly we saw a swing in the type of applicants we were getting. They were people who were already working in other places.”

The other draw for The Local Restaurants was its ‘anti-assembly line’ kitchen culture. In addition to paying above the local average, Cipollo and his team knew some cooks really want the chance to grow and learn.  

“They’re looking for places where there’s something more than money that’s in it for them. Wages are great, in fact they’re a necessity, but what else is there in terms of growth and learning? Will this lead to better things for me?” - Michael Cipollo - Chef/Owner - Local Restaurants Inc. 

Sinclair agrees: “A lot of culinary people are looking to grow.”  

But he says different restaurant models appeal to different types of people.

“There are two different types of people you find on resumes: The type who don’t want to be at chains because they want that creativity, and the people who don’t want to be at independents because they’re not comfortable with that lack of structure.”

For Sinclair, it comes back to the leadership, engagement, and recognition.

“When you’re in a culture where it’s us against them, that resentment happens more. You want your culture to be more of a team.”

As a manager, recognize your kitchen staff for their hard work! And, encourage the rest of your team to do it too (getting a “nicely done!” from servers can go a long way). 

“That’s what they want to hear, and they don’t necessarily want to hear it from managers. They want to hear it from servers.”

Cipollo believes there are some other non-monetary ways to boost morale at the back.

“You have to take care of your people. Give them a Friday night off to go do whatever it is that helps them recharge. We also don’t charge for meals or uniforms. They get tipped out.”

What can you do beyond wages and recognition?

Raising wages is one way to go. Creating some sort of recognition program and simply being more mindful of recognizing great work is another that can go a long way. But, you can also combat this crisis from another angle – controlling labour costs. Get an online scheduling software like Ameego – a platform that automatically builds perfect schedules and helps you reach labour targets. Get in touch with us and see how we can help.

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