The Difficulty Finding and Keeping Great Restaurant Staff

One of the challenges that accompanies a booming restaurant scene is finding and retaining the right, hardworking staff.

There are plenty of upsides to Calgary’s recent restaurant boom. Staffing is not one of them.

Restaurants face a constant battle to find, train and retain competent and professional chefs, servers, managers and bartenders. They’re competing against each other but also collectively against other industries that offer better hours, better pay and other benefits.

Chef and restaurateur Michael Noble employs approximately 150 people between his restaurants The Nash and Notable. He attributes his success in maintaining his staff to developing a strong people-centric brand for his restaurants.

“People are a big part of our brand and our identity. You can build a beautiful restaurant with beautiful furniture, a great kitchen, great light fixtures etc., but until you add the right people to the mix, you haven’t created the experience,” Noble says.

Noble explains that by creating an atmosphere where everyone is invested in the success of the business, he is able to balance the needs of the staff and the business. Compensation that includes tip sharing, staff “family” meals, staff events and common employee spaces all encourage the team to connect with each other and ensure people are nourished physically and mentally. If their needs are addressed, they can focus on excelling in their jobs.

But not every restaurant has the cachet of Notable and The Nash to attract staff that are experienced and have a genuine desire to thrive in the industry, and many struggle to find good employees.

Fortunately, the Calgary restaurant boom has helped fuel the expansion of restaurant-related programs at SAIT Polytechnic, which is well known for its efforts in building the foundation of this industry. Tom Bornhorst, the dean of hospitality and tourism at SAIT, says that he has seen significant growth in the number of students applying to get in and in the number of programs offered, which include the professional cooking program, bakery/pastry arts, hospitality management, butchery and charcuterie management. The cook and baking apprentice programs have increased as well.

“We have grown our culinary arts programs by 50 per cent in the last five years. Everywhere I go, the industry keeps asking for us to provide our applied education to more students to fill the demand.

“The strong growth in the industry has created a gap in the supply/demand equation. Many businesses are finding it difficult to find trained employees for their operations in the hospitality and tourism industry,” says Bornhorst.

While SAIT’s programming is definitely a positive step, still, restaurateurs can’t always be sure if their staff can cut it until the grease hits the pan – especially if these newly trained employees haven’t thought about the job beyond the glamour of celebrity chefs.

“This industry is seen to be pretty cool right now. With open kitchens happening, Food TV and cool tattooed chefs with toques, everyone wants to be one. Sometimes, once people see the harsh reality of what it takes to get there, they fade away because they’re not that committed,” says Noble. “We know people want to have a life, but we need them to respect the fact that we’re running a business; we need them here when we need them here.”

The “harsh reality” Noble is referring to relates to demanding hours, physical demands and just plain hard work. But there are other harsh realities, too, which have recently made headlines in the media – realities that also make it difficult to attract and retain quality staff for restaurants. Most specifically, the subject of harassment, emotional and sometimes physical abuse in kitchens toward both men and women has been in the spotlight since Toronto chef Kate Burnham filed an application with Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal in June 2015 alleging “rampant” and “unrelenting” sexual harassment by three former chefs – an allegation that has prompted a nationwide dialogue about a problem that appears to have been festering in the hospitality industry for years.

To wit, in March 2015, four University of Alberta students launched the website F.E.D.U.P.YEG (the acronym stands for Feminist Eatery Database Undercover Project) to draw attention to issues regarding sex, gender and race in the service industry, and to give servers and customers a platform to share stories of sexism in the serving industry.

One must assume that Calgary’s restaurant industry isn’t immune to such bad behaviour, but, on the positive side, it’s important to see restaurateurs like Noble actively creating an inclusive and positive kitchen culture, which helps set a standard that benefits both the business and the staff.

As Calgary starts to play on the world’s culinary stage, the demands on the quality of all aspects of the restaurants here rise. Not only must the food and concepts keep pace with rising expectations, but the service must as well. The restaurant industry must create unique experiences for the diner that align with this growth, while simultaneously creating the conditions for successful long-term careers.

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