Dishwashers keep restaurants running, yet the position is hard to keep filled | photo by Ruta Smith

On a busy night of service at a restaurant, making sure that guests are enjoying themselves requires the participation and focus of every single staff member. 

Restaurants anticipate employees calling out of their scheduled shifts in the F&B industry, especially for dishwashing positions. “Dishwashing is a demanding job and it’s not very satisfying,” said James London of Chubby Fish. 

Holding onto a great dishwasher is not as easy as it would seem, but there are some veterans in the pit who keep kitchens alive. Jerome Dais, who has been washing dishes for 10 years, currently works at Park and Grove to help the restaurant operate smoothly. “They treat me very fair,” Dais said. “Chef [Ramon Taimanglo] is the best boss I’ve ever had.” 

But not everyone feels the same as Dais about dishwashing. 

“Nobody wants to wash dishes anymore,” Samantha Kramer of Baguette Magic said in a May interview with the City Paper. “Has anyone dishwashed for a straight week in a restaurant? It’s not enjoyable work.”

Even before Covid-19, the hospitality industry faced staffing shortages. But during the pandemic when people were losing their jobs either temporarily or permanently, staffing problems worsened for restaurants and hotels. And dishwashers were always the hardest positions to fill for some restaurants because of the historically low wages and generally unappealing work detail.

“We have our problems like everyone else,” added Paula Kramer of Baguette Magic. “I can’t find a dishwasher to save our lives.”

Some people have taken steps to help solve this problem. GigPro, a work app launched in 2019, now fills 1,000 service jobs a week in Charleston, including catering events, dishwashing, serving, cooking and hotel work, according to founder Ben Ellsworth. 

This dishwashing problem served as the ultimate inspiration for GigPro. Ellsworth was leading the kitchen at The Royal American when a dishwasher called out, inspiring him to create a solution. 

When developing the app, Ellsworth realized one of the hospitality industry’s “biggest mishaps” is that “we’ve spent far too much time and energy focused on pleasing the customer and not the people making that experience happen.” 

Though dishwashers play an essential role in a restaurant, they are often forgotten by guests. Praise and tips are given to chefs and servers; rarely do dishwashers receive accolades for their hard work.

But some places, like Chubby Fish and 5th Street Restaurant Group that owns Church and Union and Tempest downtown, have found ways to make the underdog role feel appreciated. 

In April 2021, 5th Street Restaurant Group launched its Tip the Kitchen initiative to help bridge a gap between front and back of the house. The program is described as a “partnership between guests and owners,” giving diners the option to tip the back of house employees. The group matches up to $500 per shift in back of house tips from diners.

One year after launching the program, the company raised $1.2 million — $760,000 from guests and $600,000 from owner, according to chef and partner Jamie Lynch. 

“All of the employees in the back of the house that work that shift share in that total equally,” Lynch said. “So there’s no scale. The dishwasher earns the same as the line cook, as the prep cook and as the sous chef. Everybody shares it equally.”

London said he prefers to keep his restaurant completely functional and intimate, and for him, a big part of that is mutual respect.

“People have to take care of their employees,” London said. “When it comes to hiring anyone, including dishwashers, we’re always looking for a new member of the family. Finding line cooks is extremely hard and finding dishwashers is also extremely hard.” Chubby Fish has recently initiated a health care program for its staff, something London said he’s happy he can implement for his team. 

And places like Baguette Magic sometimes have to rely on teamwork and camaraderie to help get through a shift without a dishwasher. 

“[Sometimes], we just really need someone to wash dishes,” Paula Kramer said. “And that is such a struggle, but our team, you know, their willingness to jump in and do anything is incredible.”

Dishwashing isn’t the only position that suffers high turnover, though. It’s a common struggle in the industry, which is where GigPro comes in to fill in the gaps, if only temporarily. 

“It’s an incredible opportunity for people to try out different restaurants to see what works for them,” said Patrick Tobias, sous chef of The Royal American. “You can find a dishwasher if you need one, but a short-order cook doesn’t always work out.”

Ellsworth said one of his goals with GigPro is to revitalize enthusiasm and bring people back into the hospitality industry.

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