Market Watch

Houston’s Restaurant Staffing Shortage — and What It Means for Diners

These days, as a restaurant owner you can’t be too proud to beg—specifically, for staff.

Before, and even after, the opening of his new Greek restaurant, Helen, Evan Turner posted multiple requests for applicants on Facebook.

“I know you are out there. Charming folks, looking to work at a plucky little Greek restaurant. We are hiring! Message me and kindly share this!”

That was just one of Turner’s many requests for people to apply. “I am hoping they fast track cloning because that seems to be the only way we will get more staff,” says Turner. "Seriously, we are always looking and rarely finding anyone—at every front-of-house position.” (For those not familiar with restaurant lingo, "front-of-house" means servers, hosts and hostesses. In other words, the people most likely to actually interact with customers.)

It’s not just Turner having a problem. Restaurateurs and bar owners all over town are having great difficulty finding people without resorting to hiring the under-qualified or those with poor references.

“This is an unprecedented restaurant boom for any city,” said restaurateur Shepard Ross, whose establishments include much-acclaimed Pax Americana. “We’re talking high-level, high-caliber projects. There are serious competitors coming up the ranks who want to provide a high level of service. Where are these people going to come from?”

One of those competitors is The Durham House, which is opening in the very near future. Owner Raj Natarajan Jr. isn’t finding there’s a shortage of applicants. He’s finding there’s a shortage of qualified applicants. “Not only do most people not meet our requirements but they’re not even willing to go through a cursory training. A lot of people just walk away and say, ‘Oh, no, I’m not going to train for five days and then work some events and learn how to do service the way you want me to.’ Finding people who have the qualifications to execute service effectively, whether on the floor, behind the bar or in the kitchen, is difficult.”

As a result—even with an impending restaurant opening—out of the 200 people Natarajan says he’s interviewed, he has only hired eight people for front-of-house staffing.

That perspective is from someone who is opening one restaurant. Now, consider opening three at the same time. That’s the challenge facing Chris Cusack of Treadsack Group, which is trying to get Hunky Dory, Foreign Correspondents and Bernadine’s all open very soon.

Of the 240 employees Cusack wants to hire to staff these new, highly-anticipated projects, he’s so far only been able to hire about 85 over the past month. “We’ve had great applicants,” says Cusack. “We just need more of them.” The inability to find enough people has actually forced Treadsack group to stagger the openings. “None of the restaurants are worth anything if they’re all staffed one-third of the way through,” says Cusack. The staffing shortage is also causing a delay in when the restaurants will be able to offer lunch service after opening.

One reason for the shortage is that many places don't treat employees very well and some people leave the restaurant industry for good. One former chef who asked to remain anonymous said, “I loved working in restaurants and hotels. I love the energy, the fast pace, and the excitement. I loved having immediate results for your hard work. But I hated the abusive system. Restaurant owners rarely give two fucks about their employees. They will use you until you burn up. You will be lied to. You will deal with sexism. You will work yourself to tears and it is not enough. At that point, you find your personal relationships have gone to hell and you've gained 30 pounds because you never sit and eat meals like a normal person.”

Even when the owners are kind to their employees and do the best by them that they can, there are still significant challenges. Restaurants tend to be low-margin businesses and it’s hard to provide benefits like paid time off and insurance. Add to that low pay, long hours and intense physical demands and there’s not a whole lot of motivation for young people to enter the industry. Those already in it sometimes leave to achieve other life goals.

Jonathan (“J.R.”) Cohen is another former restaurant staffer who left that type of work behind, even though he loved being in the business. "I didn't want to miss out on anymore of my child's life,” he explained. “All those precious moments that happen early on, I was not being part of. It killed me. I had to sacrifice what I love to do for a stronger love, that of being a father."

David LaRock used to work in restaurants as well and changed careers for exactly the same reason. “I left mostly because I wanted to start a family. With the hours that the industry demands, that was impossible. I wanted my weekends, evenings and holidays back!” he wrote. These days, he works on the other side of the counter, selling point-of-sale and credit card processing systems.

Les Maudlin worked in several restaurants under some of Houston’s best chefs starting in the 1970s. He recently traded his old career for a new one: driving an 18-wheeler. He says, “I left the industry due to the roller-coaster pay, long hours on my feet and the office politics involving management and door staff. Driving a truck provides me with full benefits, very little interaction with idiots and egomaniacs, and I get paid to see the country.”

Even people who love the industry and want back in are having a hard time finding a situation that allows them to keep their work and personal life balanced. Brandon Fisch was a chef at The Burger Guys, Yelapa and Bootsie’s. He took time off to become a father and although he’s itching to get back into a kitchen, he says, “I will only go back if it's the right fit that understands the importance of family and not just profits and food costs. That hasn't been too easy to find.”

Ross says that providing family-friendly benefits, such as medical insurance, is extremely costly and difficult for small, independent restaurants. Besides that, workers are so transient that it’s potentially a human resources nightmare. “It’s harder for the smaller places to compete with Pappas or other, larger companies," he explained. "You also have so much turnover that you’d be continuously beginning and terminating coverage. Smaller companies don’t have the HR to accommodate that. We try to treat our employees right, and the in-demand employees won’t go to work without these things. Salaried management [at Pax Americana] have subsidized insurance. Hourly employees come and go, but we’re looking into a cost-effective way where if someone is here a certain amount of time, we’ll step forward and put them on a plan, most likely one that we pay into and they pay into.”

Regarding the transient nature of bar and restaurant employees and the resulting nightmarish HR scenario Ross describes, Cusack says, “He’s completely right.” Regardless, Treadsack is one of the few restaurant groups that dare to offer health, dental and vision insurance as well 401k plans. The company has hired an HR director who’s used to dealing with offshore oil and gas personnel (who tend to be similarly transient) to administer the plans.

It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Should benefits be offered to employees to make them more include to stay put, or do you wait for employees to prove their long-term loyalty and then offer it to avoid continually enrolling and removing employees from the insurance? Cusack believes that offering benefits helps retention. “I think we do probably a little better than the industry average. We keep them a bit longer than I think most people do, but I sure would like to do a lot better at it,” he says.

Marie LeNôtre is in the business of training future restaurant workers. She is the co-founder and director of highly regarded Culinary Institute LeNôtre and very familiar with the work struggles culinary school graduates will face. She stresses the importance of paying the newly graduated a fair wage in order to keep them on the job, but also points out that those with perseverance will find a way to succeed regardless.

“After so much hard work and financial commitment,” she wrote in an email, “it is disheartening to see [our former students] sometimes abandon the trade because of the low compensation. Luckily the very best, courageous and talented graduates pursue a chef career, making huge sacrifices and often working two jobs at a time. I understand restaurants also need to keep their costs down to stay competitive. Nevertheless, they should pay their chefs and cooks a decent salary to get decent people working for them. We have many examples of wonderful restaurants succeeding doing just that!”

For now, it’s a “buyers’ market, with the restaurant worker in the position of the buyer,” says Natarajan. Ross agreed with this perspective, saying that the cream-of-the-crop restaurant workers have realized they are highly in demand and have “their pick of the litter.” As a result, they are gravitating to restaurants with a good reputation, where they believe they’ll find greater visibility and success, like Pax Americana.

“It’s not like, ‘I just want a date,“ says Ross. “It’s like, ‘I want to find a person to marry.’”

What does this all mean for Houston diners? It means two-hour lunches and glacial dinners. When restaurants are already running with a skeletal staff, if someone doesn’t show up or calls in sick, service will take a hit for the rest of the shift. So, if you enjoy dining out, allow some extra time and put your patience hat on. Keep expectations realistic. Don’t expect you’ll dine at 6 and still be able to make a 7:30 p.m. movie.

Diners in an unavoidable hurry should politely communicate their needs to servers. Most are entirely able to take an order for appetizer, entrée, dessert and drinks in one fell swoop and then bring the check.

In the meantime, be prepared to deal with a wait. This staffing shortage is likely to be with Houston for some time to come. 
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook