The good news: Things are improving.
The bad news: Not for everyone.
The fear of a double dip recession seems to be waning, and the dining public, whether because they are doing better or because they are just tired of pulling in their belts, are opening their wallets in restaurants again.
Hiring is up:
That means that restaurants are hiring once more, although not with the enthusiasm we saw four years ago and not at the prices. It is still very much a buyer’s market, with some positions going up to twenty thousand or more under the highest compensation of the restaurant boom years.
New restaurants are opening in most of the major dining areas, partly because property can be had and leases can be closed at attractive prices and partly because many qualified culinary and FoH professionals have preferred to open their own locations rather than continue to battle a bleak employment market.
What is more important is that restaurant professionals are beginning to reach their heads out of the trenches, so there is circulation in the job pool. One of the main causes of low availability of jobs during these last years was not that so many locations were closing or cutting back, but because fewer chefs or managers were daring to leave their positions to move on or up, resulting in a stagnant employment situation and a great lack of available talent. Think of the employment market as a game of musical chairs in which nobody stands up.
Improvements are not universal:
While this is changing, the change is not complete, and the improvement in the job market is not universal nor does it cover all jobs equally.
The currently most sought after position is that of sous chef. Serious pastry chef openings are still rare, and I question whether the pastry earlier pastry chef frenzy will ever be seen again.
Good chefs for some parts of the country are in high demand, but the market shows extreme regional differences. Florida appears to be the worst hit location for chefs and managers, while Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and New York, among other destination restaurant cities, are increasing hiring. Texas, which did not suffer terribly during the worst of the downturn, continues to require qualified staff. Oregon, Washington State and Colorado all seem to be recovering nicely.
Internationally the main job creation appears to be in the United Arab Emirates followed by China, then the rest of Asia. This is an excellent time for qualified professionals – the sweet spot is for chefs de cuisine and Executive Sous Chefs – to launch their careers in some international five star properties. These all require completed professional education, a stable background in recognizable restaurants of quality, usually at least two years minimum in each spot. Since only the USA follows equal opportunity employment standards, foreign employers can set requirements for nationality, age and gender. Most foreign jobs will go to chefs between about 29 and 42 years of age. Most prefer European training to American, although American chefs are sought after in some places.
It is going to be interesting to see how compensation develops. In “progressive” areas like San Francisco, where municipal and state mandates eat up large percentages of operation profits, some of the costs are likely to be taken from the salaries of the middle and upper food management. The exploding cost of food, furthermore, is going to put pressure on salaries in a zero sum game, where raising prices will cause customer loss.
The Depression feeling of the age continues to influence menus, customers preferring simpler and less intimidating cuisine with few new attempts at cutting edge food and still limited opportunities for chefs who have put a great deal of effort into developing the newest and most complex cuisines. At some point this will change, but for the moment positions requiring small staff quality comfort menus vastly outstrip those requiring cutting edge, labor intensive processes.
Since so many chefs and managers have remained at the same location for the past three or four years, stability, which is often desired, is now expected. Those who have changed frequently will be competing with professionals whose resumes show a higher level of commitment.
There are a large number of self employed chef owners among the job seekers, With a few exceptions, the market is not welcoming them, nor is it welcoming those who have been independent contractors or consultants.
What this means for you:
1) It is less risky than it was to seek another job, but there are still not so many available that you will find a safety net of other opportunities if the new position does not work out. This means it is important to determine that any change is well within your competence and with a solid business.
2) Regional differences in hiring make it hard to move to some areas of the country, and job seekers in those locations will find that the ration of available positions to job searchers is low. You should not, thus, relocate to San Diego or Miami, then look for a job. Even in the more active employment markets local candidates are generally preferred to those who have not been working in the area’s culture for some time.
3) Salaries offered at new positions may not meet or exceed current compensation if you have been at a location for several years. The competition for desirable positions is high, and all employers will take your salary requirements into consideration when making their choices.
4) From the employer perspective, there are still some “deals” to be had in staff. Offering too little, however, creates the risk that a competitor will recognize and lure away your “bargain” chef. Those who accept exceptionally low salaries, furthermore, generally reveal themselves to be worth what they are paid.
5) While most of the weak restaurants have been culled from the herd, there are still some hangers on, who hire chefs just to get to the next month. While common sense and caution is important for everyone in the hiring process at all times, care in choosing a financially sound operation is especially important during times like this.
6) Despite the state of the economy, the prime rules of job choice do not change. Choosing for quality and professionalism is always the best policy.
7) We have no guarantee that we are really out of the worst of the financial crisis, despite the growing consensus that the double dip recession is not going to occur. Now, in Oct 2011, the weakness in the EU could have a profound effect on all restaurant markets. Keeping this in mind, choosing employment with strong businesses makes a lot of sense.
8) Restaurant pastry chefs may indeed not come back for a while, although they eventually will. At the moment extreme pastry is getting a great degree of press (Foe gras ice cream, berry and estragon napoleon, etc.) but the overall demand that does exist generally involves highly developed bakery skills. Hotels, on the other hand, continue to hire and train pastry staff and will presumably continue to do so. Those early in a pastry career should consider these realities when choosing their path.
Above all the current economic situation of the restaurant industry means for you that you will continue to need to make you choices in the direction of your overall career and your next job decisions with more care than we assumed necessary a few years ago.