A Worker Shortage Is Forcing Restaurants to Get Creative

“I think the assumption is, the industry has to continue to evolve in terms of the work force it is trying to appeal to,” said Gordon Lambourne, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. “People want flexibility, they want some growth defined for them.”

The growth in dining out is clear. The nation added 15,145 restaurants, a net increase of 2.5 percent, just between the third quarters of 2016 and 2017, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Orders accumulate in the Taco Bamba kitchen.

Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

“Everybody eats out,” said Gerri Mason Hall, the head of human resources at Sodexo in North America, the giant food service company and cafeteria operator, which also vies for restaurant workers. “We are competing for executive chefs, front line cooks, the entire talent pool.”

The demand for highly skilled help is especially acute in Washington, where a boom in restaurants run by creative chefs is outstripping the region’s labor force. Zagat named Washington, once considered a second-tier city in the culinary world, as the nation’s hottest food city in 2016.

Established players from around the country have moved in, like the chef David Chang of the New York-based Momofuku group and Stephen Starr, the Philadelphia restaurateur behind the Washington hot spot Le Diplomate. Danny Meyer, the New York restaurant mogul, is on his way with an outpost of Union Square Cafe.

In November, the last month for which data is available, food service accounted for half of all net job growth here, a 7.5 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Department of Labor.

Restaurant industry experts say the recent crackdown on undocumented workers has sent a further chill through the business. Dishwashers and other low-wage restaurant workers have long been recruited from the nation’s undocumented work force, but many restaurateurs are wary now of going to that well.

“Our industry is very much in need of a temporary visa program for the low-skilled, essential workers,” said Shannon Meade, the National Restaurant Association’s director of labor and work force policy. While visas are available for seasonal work, she added, “a year-round program would go a long way to addressing our hiring and retention issue.”

The labor shortage has at times altered the nature of restaurants, as well as the quality of service. “In some cases I believe it has changed the direction certain restaurants had originally planned on,’’ said Mr. Albisu, the Taco Bamba owner. “There is less polish.”

Many diners complain about restaurants where the food is expensive but the service is lacking. Water glasses are left unfilled. Guests stand waiting for attention at a host stand, and servers with little knowledge of the menu merely smile sheepishly as sophisticated customers ask questions.


Employees at Michael Schlow’s restaurant Alta Strada in Wellesley, Mass., participate in a wine-and-food tasting, part of the chef’s staff-retention strategy. “If people feel like they are learning, they are more apt to stay,” he said.

M. Scott Brauer for The New York Times

Lindsay DiSalvo, the assistant general manager at Metropolitan Hospitality Group, which operates several restaurants in the Washington region, recently spent one of her rare days off poring through the résumés of 15 applicants for a coming venture without finding anyone suitable. “I was freaking out,” she said.

The more experienced workers, she said, are attracted to the increasing number of Washington restaurants with high-profile chefs, leaving midlevel establishments like hers struggling with inexperienced and often fickle help. One woman seeking a position at the bar, she said, “could not name a single varietal of wine.”

Mr. Albisu said pride long ago succumbed to desperation. “I can name two dozen people who left my company to start a new place who came back looking for their old jobs back,” he said. “In the old days we would say, ‘Hell, no.’ Now we say, ‘Sure.’ We chefs call each other and say: ‘Have you fired anyone we can repurpose? I know he can’t plate, but maybe he can just grill.’”

Chris Floyd, the owner of Capital Restaurant Resources, a recruitment firm, said a central problem is that Washington does not naturally attract people interested in food. “People don’t come here for restaurant careers,” he said. “They came here to be in government or go to grad school or be lawyers. The population hasn’t caught up with the demand in the hospitality industry.”

So chefs and restaurant owners are casting their recruitment nets more widely.

“What we need to start doing better than ever is breaking down the stereotypes of who typically gets these jobs,” Mr. Meyer, the founder of Union Square Hospitality Group, said during a recent panel discussion in Washington. “We are holding job fairs right now with organizations we were not even thinking about five years ago,” he said, including those that assist people with learning disabilities, older workers and former prisoners.

Many Washington restaurateurs turn to D.C. Central Kitchen, which trains ex-prisoners, the formerly homeless and recovering addicts. In the past two years, 87 percent of its 177 graduates found jobs, said Alexander Justice Moore, the organization’s chief development officer.

Still, he said the group could do more. “We can only fit so many students in our cramped classroom in the basement of a homeless shelter,” he said.

The National Restaurant Association has begun several programs for high school students and adults who have trouble getting work, including apprenticeships through the Department of Labor and a new initiative that helps place veterans into food service.


The Alta Strada employees taste a bean dish, Tuscan olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar and one of the red wines on the restaurant’s list.

M. Scott Brauer for The New York Times

Taco Bell and McDonald’s both announced in recent weeks that they would expand programs to help employees pay for college tuition.

Chris Coombs, the chef and owner of the restaurant group Boston Urban Hospitality, has offered to repay culinary-school loans. “One consistent theme of our cooks is that they all had student loan debt,” he said. “It was one of many tactics.”

He even outsourced the unpleasant duty of deep-cleaning the kitchen that usually fell to 20- to 30-something line cooks. “I think millennials are really focused on quality of life,” he said.

He has also tried to clean up the kitchen in other ways. “You can’t come to work and scream at people,” he said. “When I was a younger chef, that was how I interacted with my team. We have a lot more positive training methods now.”

Michael Schlow, who owns restaurants around the country, offers his team educational workshops on wine and spirits, and recently took two chefs on a trip to Italy to study cooking techniques and eat.

“We don’t win them over with a paycheck,” he said. “Pay is important, but of more importance is respect and admiration and learning. If people feel like they are learning, they are more apt to stay.”

The #MeToo movement has had an impact as well. Accusations of harassment and worse against well-known chefs like Mario Batali and John Besh have shed light on abusive and discriminatory practices in the industry that many owners say will have to change if restaurants want to attract workers, particularly women.

Restaurateurs must start “taking care of their staff,” said Aaron Silverman, the owner of the celebrated Rose’s Luxury, on Capitol Hill. The goal is restaurants that are as professionally run as other businesses — “places that just happen to serve food.”

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Sidelined by Scandal, Mario Batali Is Eyeing His Second Act

Mr. Batali, who has never been known for his patience, is asking that question — actively exploring when or whether he should begin his. Friends and associates say he is floating ideas, pondering timelines and examining whether there is a way for him to step back into his career, at least in some fashion.


Mr. Batali co-hosting the Food Bank for New York City Can Do Awards dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in 2017.

Brent N. Clarke/Invision, via Associated Press

Mr. Batali declined to be interviewed, saying he was “still figuring out my stuff.” Those who have spoken with him recently said he appears to be deeply introspective and seeking counsel on what his future might hold, both personally and professionally.

Mr. Batali is examining what he has called his blind spots and considering how life might look when he is not, as he told one person he consulted over the winter, “the lead singer.” He told a colleague that he is simply trying to learn to be the wallpaper in the room and not the room itself.

Nonetheless, Mr. Batali has sketched several scenarios that put him in the driver’s seat but cede some control, people he has spoken with recently say. One is creating a new company led by a powerful woman chief executive. In early February, he broached the idea with Federica Marchionni, the former president of Dolce & Gabbana, who was briefly the chief executive of Lands’ End.

This month, he is traveling to Rwanda and Greece to work with refugees as a private citizen. He is thinking about creating a program in which chefs can join him a few times a year to help displaced Rwandans as they return to their country.

On the other hand, Mr. Batali has said, he might just move to the Amalfi Coast.

He is still wrestling with the future of the restaurant group that he started with his partner, Joe Bastianich, in 1998 when they opened Babbo. The two men are communicating through lawyers these days, negotiating a complicated buyout that is difficult but, both sides said, not acrimonious.

“The process of his divestiture is going really well considering how complex it is,” Mr. Bastianich said last week. “The real point of beginning will be when he departs from the company. That’s ground zero. It’s about creating a post-Mario world.”

When Mr. Batali’s name comes up among groups of food professionals over drinks or between sessions at conferences, some say that if any of the men caught in the current wave of sexual harassment scandals can forge a path back, it might be Mr. Batali.

He still has legions of fans and colleagues who admire and respect his generosity, culinary knowledge and charisma. Many still post their interpretations of his recipes on Instagram, ask him for selfies on the street or urge his return to “The Chew” on Facebook. His restaurants continue to attract customers.

Still, there seems to be no end to late-night television jokes at his expense. His movements around New York are fodder for tabloids and tweets, some suggesting that his past behavior bordered on criminal.

Few food celebrities want to be connected to him publicly. Privately, some suggest the time has come for a more nuanced approach to replace the scorched-earth policy toward men who have harassed women — one that allows something resembling redemption.

But for Mr. Batali, that door may not be open — at least professionally.

“Retire and count yourself lucky,” said Anthony Bourdain, a longtime friend of Mr. Batali’s who has not spoken with him recently. “I say that without malice, or without much malice. I am not forgiving. I can’t get past it. I just cannot and that’s me, someone who really admired him and thought the world of him.”

Others, including people who have worked for him, say his food knowledge and his palate would be a loss. Melissa Rodriguez, who took over in 2017 as the executive chef at Mr. Batali’s most acclaimed restaurant, Del Posto, often asked him to come to the kitchen to taste new dishes and share his advice. “He’s been nothing but a generous individual to me,” she said.

Ms. Rodriguez said she never considered leaving the company after his treatment of women came to light. “The biggest concern is for my staff,” she said. “I have a huge staff, and I am not in the business of abandoning people I spend more time with than my family.”

People whose opinion Mr. Batali has sought are counseling him to take it slowly, and to consider whether he and his family want to endure all that would come if he stepped back into the food business.

Ms. Muhlke, a former editor at The New York Times Magazine and Bon Appétit, said her advice to any accused chef would be the same: “Leave the field,” she said, “and let us do the work needed to build something better.”

Ms. Muhlke would not discuss the details of her February meeting with Mr. Batali, but said “my advice to these chefs and restaurateurs is that this is not a scandal, this is a paradigm shift. The old ‘wait it out and return appearing humbled’ prescription no longer applies.”

Christine C. Quinn, whom Mr. Batali supported during her 2013 run for New York City mayor, is now the president and chief executive of Win, the city’s largest provider of shelter for homeless families. She is a friend of Mr. Batali’s, and one of the advisers he sought out this winter. She, too, told him to take things very slowly.

“My advice for him has been since Day 1 to recognize the severity of what has been leveled against him and recognize how absolutely and completely unacceptable his behavior was,” she said.

If he does start a new company, she said, he should give the reins to people who can drastically change the culture that both allowed and hid his behavior.

“I do give Mario a ton of credit for reaching out to people like myself, and not calling for us to stand with him,” Ms. Quinn said. “I think that bodes well.” She, like others who have spoken with him recently, believes that he is slowly coming to understand the impact of his behavior and the reasons it happened, including his relationship with alcohol.

“I think he is trying to find a way to engage in real redemptive behavior,” Ms. Quinn said, “but only time will tell.”

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