A pizza place in Robbinsdale and an acclaimed downtown restaurant have cut hours because they can’t find enough cooks.
A burger joint in the Minneapolis skyway can’t hire a reliable cashier.
A steakhouse at the Mall of America also is struggling to attract cooks, just as several new restaurants there get ready to open.
Restaurateurs across Minnesota are facing a growing shortage of workers at the same time a boom in restaurant openings is creating even more need for servers and cooks. The state’s food service industry, which offers new hires a median wage of $9.11 per hour, this summer had the most openings since 2001, 44 percent more than a year ago.
The trend reflects both the strengthening of the labor market, with unemployment down to 4 percent in the state, and a shrinking pool of workers as baby boomers exit the workforce in growing numbers. As opportunities increase throughout the economy, lower-paying industries like restaurants are having trouble finding help.
“Some of those college graduates that have been stuck waiting tables for the last two or three years are finding jobs elsewhere,” said Steve Hine, a labor market analyst for the state.
For restaurant owners like Mike Brown, one of the founders of the Travail Collective of three restaurants in Robbinsdale, the competition for workers is forcing trade-offs they’d rather not make.
They can’t find enough driven, reliable workers who will endure the long hours and historically low pay of working in a kitchen. “This is bad,” Brown said. “Anyone that’s trying to bring on professional chefs is short-staffed.”
Brown started in the restaurant world when a chef had to work a little while for free just to earn a shot at a good job. Now, he can’t find enough chefs for his restaurants in Robbinsdale.
In August, Brown and his partners decided to close one of the restaurants, Pig Ate My Pizza, on Tuesdays because of the staffing shortage.
He admits it’s not easy to work in his kitchen. Cooks at Travail start at about $26,000 per year, plus tips, without health benefits. And they work hard. They start to prep around lunchtime, working quickly and mostly silently, dance music bumping through the restaurant's sound system.
When the doors open at 5 p.m., they handle the duties of a cook and a server. The weeks are roughly 55 hours long and the job is salaried — no overtime. Shifts last until midnight at Pig Ate My Pizza, closer to 1:30 a.m. at the other two restaurants, Travail and the Rookery.
But the job has perks. Cooks at the restaurants get six weeks of paid vacation and all year they work only four days a week. Brown views new cooks as something resembling apprentices. They are able to hone their craft at an acclaimed, demanding restaurant. As they prove themselves, they move up in responsibility and pay.
“You just have to earn it,” said Brown. “You have to prove that you’re supposed to earn more money.”
Chefs across the Twin Cities say the boom in new restaurant openings is outpacing the supply of qualified cooks.
More than 100 new restaurants opened in the Twin Cities in 2014, and the boom has continuedthis year.
Just last week, the owners of Brasserie Zentral, an Austro-Hungarian-influenced restaurant in downtown Minneapolis’ Soo Line Building, decided to close on Sundays in part because of the difficulty they face staffing the kitchen with the necessary five cooks.
“That’s very much based on the boom of restaurants in the Twin Cities, which is a great thing, but has depleted the market for talent,” said Desta Klein, one of the owners.
Klein and her husband, Russell, decided to open another one of their restaurants, Foreign Legion, on Sundays instead, because it requires fewer chefs.
Masu is opening a new location in Apple Valley and struggling to hire sushi chefs, and the Mall of America is getting an infusion of new eating establishments.
Paul Pershica, the general manager of Cadillac Ranch on the mall’s third level, worries as he watches half a dozen new restaurants get ready to open in his immediate vicinity, including a revamped and expanded Rainforest Cafe.
He estimates the new kitchens will require 200 new staff, and he already struggles to fill positions when busy times like the holiday shopping season arrive. He expects the difficulty to increase.
“It has become a challenge for back of the house,” Pershica said, using industry parlance for kitchen. “They’re not piling in here like they used to.”
Kids these days
Finding quality help in the front of the house — the servers, hosts and bartenders visible to customers — can also be a struggle, Pershica said.
Both he and Travail’s Brown say part of the problem is that too many younger Americans don’t want to work and get better at a tough job.
“As much as you try to sell people on the idea that hard work is the only thing that’s going to get you anywhere in life, they don’t buy into it,” said Brown, who’s 30.
Earlier this month, Pershica hired a 20-year-old who came to training for a couple of days and then disappeared. He didn’t call. He didn’t return calls. He showed up a week later, saying his grandfather had died. Then he left early that day for a family emergency. Again, he was missing in action for a week, and showed up on Wednesday, expecting to work.
Pershica, who started as a cook 25 years ago and has managed restaurants for 20 years, sent the young man home.
“These kids don’t understand competitiveness,” he said.
Attention on wages
Part of the problem for restaurants in attracting workers is the low wages they generally pay to kitchen staff.
The culinary program at Minneapolis Community Technical College now faces suspension because jobs in the industry often don’t support student loan repayment, and 42 percent of graduates there have defaulted on their loans.
Parasole Restaurant Holdings, the company that owns and operates several restaurants, including Chino Latino, Good Earth and Mozza Mia, has gotten less interest in its openings in 2015, a problem the group never had before, said Donna Fahs, Parasole’s chief operating officer.
The company offers free meals to staff and health insurance for anyone who works more than 28 hours a week. But the firm still struggles to find talent. As of mid-September, Parasole had about 20 kitchen openings and 30 openings for front of the house workers.
“I don’t think the problem’s going to go away,” Fahs said.
She and others in the industry are examining how they schedule workers and pay them, especially after servers received a $1-an-hour pay hike in August from the rise in the minimum wage. Cooks are paid above minimum wage and most restaurants didn’t automatically raise their wages because doing so would create pressure to raise prices or accept lower profits.
“Everybody is looking right now at wages,” Fahs said. “Certainly to retain people, you have to pay them more.”
The question for state restaurant owners is whether the current shortage of workers will become a lasting condition.
Hine, the state economist, said demographic trends aren’t promising for anyone who needs to hire people. “Over the next 15 years, the labor force is at best going to grow very slowly, and maybe even shrink,” he said.
Immigrants could fill some restaurant jobs, as they have for decades. The debate over immigration reform has big implications for the industry.
Lisa Oh, owner of the Burger Place in the skyway in downtown Minneapolis, has had a cashier position open intermittently for the past two years. She can’t find someone reliable for the job. “It’s very difficult to find helpers,” she said. “There’s no one.”
Her best employees, ones who have worked for her for nearly two decades, are Hispanic. She thinks the U.S. should issue more work visas to Hispanic workers, whom she admires greatly.
The Minnesota Restaurant Association advocates for a fast, cheap way to allow “current immigrants and their families, regardless of status, to become documented legal participants in our society.” That’s also the position of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and several statewide agribusiness groups.
“Our labor force is going to depend to a great extent on what we do with immigration,” said Hine, the analyst for the state of Minnesota. “That’s always difficult to project.”