Culinary Crisis: The Reason for the Restaurant Chef Shortage

By: Ryan Gromfin

7 Minute Read

Nov 09, 2017

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chef shortage

Treat your employees as well as you do your customers and you will have a lot more of them.

Talk to any restaurant owner today, and they will tell you the same thing - it's harder than ever to find qualified restaurant staff.

Does that mean there is a chef shortage for restaurants? Or is there something else happening here?

A great chef is integral to the restaurant experience. In our recent Restaurant Technology in 2016 Report, we found that above all else, consumers value delicious food over any other aspect in a restaurant. It's up to your exceptional chefs to develop recipes, prepare the ingredients, cook to perfection, and delight your guests again and again.

But when chefs switch in and out of your restaurants faster than you can count them - or if you find yourself understaffed - this guest experience is jeopardized with inconsistent food and chaos in the kitchen.

In this blog, we will go over:

  • Whether or not there really is a chef shortage in this country.
  • The causes of this apparent shortage.
  • Ways you can retain staff to avoid turnover.

Is There a Chef Shortage in the Country?

Well, yes and no. But you're probably asking yourself how that can be. First, let's look at some numbers.

  • There are an estimated 10 million individuals working in the restaurant industry.
  • It's estimated that about four to five thousand people graduate from culinary school each year.
  • There were just over 620,000 restaurants in the country as of Spring 2016, with over 1 million total locations.

Gut reaction: there should be a lot of staff looking for jobs in restaurants. However, the industry turnover rate is over 63%. Where are all the chefs and culinary school grads going after they leave a restaurant to cause this chef shortage? Let's discuss.

Why is There a Chef Shortage?

From my experience in the restaurant industry, I have found that a lot of people who graduate culinary school do not actually pursue a career in the culinary field.

My wife has a degree in baking and pastry and she has never worked in a restaurant (she sold high end women’s clothing right out of culinary school). Of the ten or so friends I keep in touch with from my graduating class (my wife included), only three of them are working in the industry.

So, based on my experience, one reason for the shortage of restaurant workers and chefs is because there is a shortage of qualified chefs and employees who want to work in the restaurant industry despite experience or education in the field.

This is due to a couple of factors. Even though culinary TV has made chefs celebrities and has caused spikes in enrollment, its still not enough. The NRN reports that 10% of the US workforce is restaurant related, but 10% of students are not getting educated on food service.

But why do these skilled chefs choose not to work in the restaurant industry after graduating culinary school? Another great question! Maybe they're scared.

Let's talk a bit about staff retention and creating a job that culinary school grads and restaurant employees will want.

What Can You Do About the Chef Shortage in Your Restaurant?

To combat the shortage of restaurant workers, we as an industry need to figure out two things…

  1. We need to figure out ways to pay our staff more and offer better benefits so they will stay longer.
  2. We need to treat our employees better. This includes finding ways to keep professionals in the industry longer by treat restaurants jobs as careers instead of part-time gigs to have while “looking for a real job."

Better Pay for Chefs

As soon as you are done throwing tomatoes at me and telling me "I can’t afford to pay more!" or "if I could get more talented people, I would!" let me start by saying these are not simple solutions.

The industry has tried giving out higher wages with built in tips, and for the most part it has failed miserably (save for five or ten ultra high-end restaurants). In theory, this is a good idea, and I believe in 20 or 30 years we might get there. However, our country is apparently not ready for this shift.

Until that day comes, look for other ways to satisfy your staff. Remember, money is not a motivator - it is a satisfier. Comped meals, better breaks, time off, more flexible working hours, restaurant swag, or other incentives you can afford to give them will make your staff satisfied without a pay raise.

Satisfying Your Restaurant Employees

In lieu of higher payment when you can't always afford it, work on treating your employees better and making your restaurant an awesome place to work. This is easy if you are running a business. If you are already doing this, I applaud you - but most restaurants in the industry are not running a business. They are running a hobby. CTA

You need to do a better job of interviewing, hiring, training and onboarding staff. It has been proven that great interviewing and onboarding will help you find better employees and keep them longer. But most restaurants wait till they need a position and the first warm body that applies is hired.

That hasty new hire is quickly handed an apron and told "good luck!"

It can’t be surprising that those same restaurants are not able to attract or retain good quality employees.

Remember this: Good employees want structure and systems, because that's what helps to make them good employees.

Structure and systems allows the cream to rise, while a lack of systems allows “poor” employees to skate by. This causes the best chefs and employees to leave your restaurant.

These good employees try again and again at different restaurants with the same results. Finally, they'll either get frustrated and switch industries or ultimately find a good restaurant to work at. And because they're set at that restaurant, they don't recycle back to you, leaving some restaurants with the unfortunate chef shortage.

These restaurants that tend to hire and retain employees who come in with years of built-up frustration. With great training systems, these restaurants set up their employees for success. They have clearly defined rules for promotion and know what they should expect every day when they tie their apron.

Solving the Restaurant Chef Shortage

To beat the chef shortage in your restaurant, then, the proposed solution is threefold.

Step 1: Develop systems based on consistency for your kitchen to put your best chefs at ease and whoop your less productive employees into shape.

Step 2: With this new environment that chefs can thrive in, your retention rate will rise and you will turn your employees into promoters for working at your business.

Step 3: Enjoy this newfound consistency and reward your chefs for their work financially and in other ways, such as work benefits, time off, etc.

A Rising Tide Floats All Boats!

You won’t be able to solve the world’s problems yourself, but the industry as a whole has a reputation of over working employees, treating them unfairly, and not paying enough. If we all do a lit better, it will benefit everybody.

Start with these three steps and make your restaurant a better place to work. Enjoy the ripple effects of eliminating your chef shortage and other restaurants will take notice, hopefully upping the competition and quality among restaurants nationwide.

But remember - it starts with you.

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