“I have two businesses in Charleston, but I can say with certainty I would not want to be opening a new restaurant in the current market conditions. Sure, we have a few other restaurant ideas we’d like to pursue, but we won’t even consider them until things stabilize here,” says Patrick Panella, owner of Chez Nous and Bin 152.
It’s true, even though the unemployment rate sits at a staggeringly low 4.5 percent, giving new residents, recent CofC grads, and once-seasonal-workers a chance at landing steadier jobs, the murmurs of a restaurant staffing shortage are far from fleeting. And for those heavily involved in Charleston’s growing Food and Beverage scene, it’s worse than ever.
“It’s beyond a shortage, it’s a deficit,” says Lindsay Collins, founder of popular podcast EffinBRadio and part-time server at FIG. Collins says the staffing shortage, a tale told over and over again in kitchens and bars across the city, has reached critical mass. And the reasons for this, as unsurprising as they may be to those in the restaurant industry, dig into Charleston’s core identity — its unparalleled collection of restaurants and passionate food culture.
Are there too many restaurants?
The word over-saturation holds such a negative connotation, but for chefs and owners across the city, it’s the only way to describe the Charleston restaurant scene. The city and its surrounding area has over 1,800 restaurants according to the Charleston Visitor’s Bureau with the highest percentage located on the peninsula. Over 25 restaurants have opened or are in the process of opening downtown this year alone.
“Looking at the list of newly opened and anticipated restaurants, the trend seems to be gaining momentum and I think the good ones will survive but many won’t,” says Ben Garbee, general manager at Lewis Barbecue, which opened this year.
For kitchen and front of house employees, a new restaurant opening every month isn’t instilling much loyalty, even for the most dedicated of servers, bartenders, and line cooks.
“This deficit has created a bit of a ‘Goldilocks’ complex, which gives employees the ability to say ‘this place makes me work too much,’ ‘this place doesn’t give me enough shifts,’ ‘this place is too slow’ — causing many to jump ship for the newest haunt in town,” Collins says.
Despite the steady growth in restaurant openings, there’s a shift on the horizon. Take Top Chef winner Kristen Kish and restaurateur Brooks Reitz, for example. Despite ample press and buzz for the restaurant they announced they’d be opening, now, partly due to the city-wide staffing shortage, those plans are on hold.
It’s not just something happening for big name chefs either. Many local chefs are pausing their restaurant dreams until the city catches up. Sarah Adams, a chef with over 15 years of experience and a resume that includes working for Mike Lata and Jason Stanhope, has experienced this firsthand.
“I’m waiting. I definitely think more people will follow suit,” Adams says. “I’m from here, I went to College of Charleston, I feel like I should be at least in the running to have a competitive restaurant because of my connections. And I would never do it right now.”
For Collins, she’s seen this affect even the most talented of chefs and famous of restaurants. Sadly, because of the saturation, some of the city’s best are leaving.
“One of Effinbradio’s most poignant moments was when I asked Daniel ‘Dano’ Heinze, former sous chef at McCrady’s and a large diplomat of Charleston’s culinary scene, if he was leaving Charleston and with zero hesitation and a genuine look of helplessness he said “yes, I wish there was room for me here but there just isn’t.”
Chefs are leaving, restaurants are closing — but the excitement of Charleston’s food scene doesn’t seem to be fading. Chefs from all over the country are still moving to the city with big restaurant dreams. The problem is, they come with a fairytale and realize very quickly that the reality isn’t quite as enchanting.
“There has been an influx of people from big cities coming down to open restaurants who think that Charleston has the population to support big restaurants the way other cities do, but Charleston is very fickle and very seasonal. If a business model doesn’t take into account the slow periods during the off-season or other random negative impacts, it will be very difficult for that restaurant to survive,” says Panella.
The newness is wearing off, and fast — making it harder for good chefs and owners to not just keep their restaurants relevant, but open.
“Every time a new restaurant opens, the clientele goes to hit that new restaurant. The norm used to be the first six months you’d be busy, and now there’s one opening every other week, so that newness is wearing off on people a lot faster,” says Chef Craig Deihl of Cypress and Artisan Meat Share.
The issue isn’t just affecting new restaurants, either. Deihl says he’s lucky if a Craigslist ad for cooks gets two responses, and he has a solid reputation and runs one of Charleston’s long-standing favorites.
“I think that’s probably the norm for everybody,” Deihl says.
Where has all the good help gone?
In 2014, when Hanna Raskin reported on the staffing crisis for the Post and Courier, much of the shortage was blamed on the improved economy. Two years later, that problem hasn’t just intensified, it’s exploded.
“When I graduated college in 2008, nobody could get a job so people went into kitchens out of necessity, because they couldn’t get the jobs their fathers had. But then they put in the effort of learning the craft of food, and they turned into the type of cook our society hadn’t seen before,” Adams says.
In some ways, that’s great. The upside of the down economy meant a surge of talented cooks, servers, and bartenders. The problem? The millennials who would fill the shoes of the line cooks and servers are taking entirely new jobs all together.
“For me, I was waiting tables at Rosebank Farms Café at Seabrook Island and I remember thinking that there weren’t a ton of options for a young guy in his twenties to make money unless at a restaurant,” says Garbee. “Now, in 2016, especially in Charleston, there are a lot of jobs. Tons of tech jobs and office type jobs that were not available to people like me in their mid-twenties 10 years ago.”
In fact, according to Lisa Chau, a writer for Forbes, Charleston is quickly outpacing the nation in tech growth by a hefty 26 percent. These alluring tech jobs don’t just provide millennials with the paychecks they crave, they’re advertised as having great benefits, more flexible hours, and fun workplaces that also provide a healthy work-life balance.
Sadly, the life of a cook or chef, especially right out of expensive culinary school, doesn’t necessarily align.
“The younger people want jobs that give them a life. They don’t necessarily want to work in a grueling kitchen for lower pay 40-plus hours a week,” Adams says.
With high-paying, less physically demanding jobs now available in their backyard, the allure of working in a restaurant has shifted, making it far less attractive than it once was. This doesn’t just lead to overtime demands and restaurants continually operating at half-staff, it causes restaurant closures — recently demonstrated by the shutdown of local favorite Two Boroughs Larder.
However, for those who do chase their dreams of restaurant fame in the Holy City, they’re spoilt for options — making loyalty a trait hard to come by.
“Loyalty is scarce and turnover, even in established and consistently busy restaurants, is higher than I’ve ever seen it in my 12 years of waiting tables in four major markets,” says Collins. For restaurateurs that means even if they’ve landed great talent, there’s a greater chance they’ll move on to greener pastures as soon as another new restaurant and a hot new chef comes to town.
Along these lines, although much less talked about among restaurant owners and chefs, is poaching — yes, even in the friendliest city in the U.S according to Conde Nast Traveller. Charleston may be known the country over for its cordial culinary relationships and supportive atmosphere, but the lack of an available and competent workforce has caused a bit of a shift in the new business pleasantries.
“It’s really hard to find the labor. Unless you just straight up steal it from another restaurant,”Diehl said. “It happens a lot. People will approach good talent and ask ‘what are you making now? I can pay you more.’ It used to be a common courtesy to call for a reference — but now, there’s just a ‘you looking to move? What are you making? I’ll pay you, because that’s the scenario that restaurants are in.”
Poaching aside, both the front and back of house employees have a distinct advantage they didn’t have before. Instead of working for free or getting paid a flat rate, good talent is able to negotiate higher pay — and many are more than willing to hop from restaurant to restaurant until they find someone willing to pay what they want.
“People are willing to pay more money because there’s such a short supply of good talent,” Adams says.
It’s not just Charleston
Charleston, due to its relatively small size, may appear to feel the affect of short staffing more intensely, but it’s hardly just an issue in the Lowcountry. Restaurants all over the country are feeling the impact.
“Good people are hard to find. It doesn’t matter what city you’re in, finding people who are qualified and motivated, it’s hard anywhere,” says Patrick Whalen, owner of 5Church on Market Street, Charlotte, and Atlanta.
It seems there just aren’t enough cooks to put in kitchens. To combat that, busy restaurants are hiring out of dire necessity, which can have an adverse affect on the restaurant’s food quality.
Restaurant owner Hooni Kim, who owns Danji and Hanjan in Manhattan, recently said that he’s given up expecting that all of his line cooks will know how to properly season and cited that he often works overtime to prep and cook so the quality of the food stays consistent.
In his recent City Paper column “Behind the Smile,” server and writer Philip Michael Cohen told readers of one recent staffing story wherein a big name local chef’s interview with a potential cook was merely: “Can you point to your dick? Great, you’re hired.”
To combat the crunch, many restaurant big wigs are over hiring and letting a sort of Darwinian theory play out. According to the New York Times, the owners of the Tao Empire hire too many cooks, and let the cards fall as they may — meaning the good ones stay and the ones who can’t cut it leave.
But the luxury of over hiring isn’t something many restaurants can afford. And instead, they’re either running short staffed or holding onto subpar employees because they can’t physically afford to let them go.
“The day of ‘Oh, there’s 10 more waitresses/cooks behind that one I just fired’ is over,” Collins says.
Sure, the economy is partly to blame, but another reason for the nationwide shortage is the simple fact that Americans have become utterly obsessed with food.
“This is completely and totally a product of an insane surge in the number of restaurants opening in every major food city, which directly correlates to the worlds’ obsession with food being at a fever pitch,” Collins says.
Young cooks are rejecting traditional jobs in kitchens — and it’s not hard to see why. A line cook can work three to five years in the same kitchen and make the same $30,000–$35,000 they started with. Now, adding to the complicated landscape, is social media and blogging, where young chefs and home cooks are showcasing their food to millions of people around the world, and getting paid handsomely. Take for instance Lindsay and Bjork Ostrom. The duo behind the immensely successful food blog Pinch of Yum make up to $70,000 per month from daily recipe posts, sponsored Instagram campaigns, speaking gigs and more.
Sarah Adams knows this firsthand. Thanks in part to the power of social media, Adams has gone from regular chef to the face of a brand, her Bad Bitches organization just started selling aprons and may have a TV deal in the works.
Social media aside, restaurants are also competing with nationwide companies like Whole Foods, Publix, Sweet Green, and Wegmans, not to mention hospitality jobs at hotels, places that have long been regaled for paying their chefs higher salaries, offering competitive benefits, and more flexible work hours, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Changes on the horizon
Luckily, there are some changes on the political horizon that have the potential to dramatically alter the way many restaurant managers, chefs, and even front of staff earn their keep. This past May, President Barack Obama and the Department of Labor issued a rule that will nearly double the federal overtime limit — raising it to raising to $913 a week that a worker must make to be exempt from overtime. And don’t worry, Trump can’t change it, at least not yet. According to employment attorney David E. Dubberly’s blog post, “Congress may pass, and then-President Trump may sign, legislation that amends the FLSA,” but as it stands now, “employers need to be prepared to meet the overtime rule’s compliance deadline of December 1, 2016.”
As it is, the overtime threshold is currently set at a meager $23,660 a year, which means anyone who makes more than that is excluded from any overtime benefits. For anyone living in a city corridor as expensive as Charleston that can mean juggling two to four jobs just to pay rent. However, now, the Department of Labor is raising the overtime level to $47,476 so anyone who makes a salary less than that is guaranteed overtime pay.
To put this into perspective, the average chef or head cook makes a salary of $45,920, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For bakers, the number is vastly lower — around $26,560. Those wages, under the new law, will guarantee these hard-working people get the pay for the overtime many put in for free now.
For Garbee, this means great things for the dedicated staff who works under him.
“Lots of sous chefs and managers get on salary and then get worked to death to the point of them burning out. Obama’s law is good in that it will give power to those employees to get compensated fairly for the work they do. I think a lot of old school places that pay their management very low salaries and work them hard will have to re-evaluate their business model, which seems like a good thing to me,” Garbee says.
That said, many business owners are concerned about the new overtime limits, as is state Attorney General Alan Wilson. Wilson supports a lawsuit filed by South Carolina, along with 20 other states, against the federal government seeking to block the department from making more workers eligible for overtime.
“The overtime rule would be bad for South Carolina business owners,” Wilson said in a statement.
To a chef or server in the trenches, however, Wilson’s words are hard to fathom.
“It’s simple. If owners want to have, and keep, good help, they’re going to have to start paying the kitchen a decent wage,” Collins says. “They have to start giving staff basic benefits.”
UPDATE: Shortly after going to press on Tues. Nov. 22, a Texas federal judge entered a nationwide injunction blocking the U.S. Department of Labor from implementing the new overtime rule. U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant sided with 21 states (included South Carolina) to issue a preliminary injunction that blocks the DOL’s overtime expansion regulation from taking effect on Dec. 1.
Some places are getting creative in order to staff up:
The Charleston shelter has begun a six week training program to give homeless people the tools to work in Charleston’s kitchen. So far, 21 participants have completed the program with 17 getting restaurant job placements. “Each is serve-safe certified,” says One80 Place CEO Stacey Denaux. “That gives them a competitive edge.” Participants have found employment at Barsa, Magnolia’s, Lana, Kickin’ Chicken, Fish, Taco Boy, and more.
But it’s not a perfect solution. “We’re just a small part of training more people to serve in F&B, but the wage issue is still a problem,” says Denaux. “One of our participants has two restaurant jobs, but he doesn’t get 40 hours a week between them — $9 is better than minimum wage, but if you’re getting 12 hours a week, what does that do for you?” Denaux adds that restaurants put so many strict background check requirements that it can be hard for One80 Place’s program graduates to find a place to work. “If you’ve served your debt to society, you should be able to work,” she says.
Teach the Need
Founded in 2012 by Charleston Grill GM Mickey Bakst and school board member Michael Miller, Teach the Need is a six-week restaurant training program for high school students in Title I schools.
Turning Leaf Project
Scott Shor, of Edmund’s Oast, has started to work with Turning Leaf Project. The organization helps formerly incarcerated men find job placements. So far Edmund’s Oast has hired one Turning Leaf participant who now works at the restaurant as a dishwasher. “The sky’s the limit, but right now we’re working with them on filling entry level positions,” says Shor.