Oct 132010

If you have given up your own restaurant and are seeking to reenter the world of the employed, you face a few challenges. You probably already know this.

The ranks of recovering restaurateur chefs and entrepreneur managers thrown back  into the labor pool exploded in 2009, as the economy took down even some of  the best restaurants. Watching most of them find jobs but not keep them has been a revelation. Most ex entrepreneurs face both internal and external hurdles in reentering the market. Recognizing them may help.

Anyone who has owned a restaurant has a lot to offer, such as peripheral vision encompassing both front and back of the house issues.

Financial responsibility for all aspects of a restaurant has provided them with insights into expense to profit relationships, so they appreciate the value of product, energy, equipment and people.

They have developed  holistic business perspectives, understanding of the necessity of pleasing the customer, marketing and advertising, sourcing.

They are, by definition, entrepreneurial. Ownership builds a profound  buck stops here sense of responsibility. Entrepreneurs learn to think on their feet and make quick decisions. Most are accustomed to working hard and long.

So why do we see the average entrepreneur come employee is a series of jobs beginning with about three months, the second counting about six, then a year before they stand back in the labor market?

Employee and entrepreneurial realities are harder to reconcile than most people realize. Giving up the reins is traumatic, occasionally impossible. The habit of making unilateral decisions rarely succeeds in someone else’s restaurant, where trip wires, egos, and territorial expectations obstruct the best intended actions.

Transitioning from your own arbitrary decisions or logically set policy to that of another location is full of pitfalls.The purpose of policy is not to produce the best outcome but to keep some fool from provoking the worst. The problem with policy is that it punishes good performance, since if it is required of one employee, it has to be required of all.  People with a strong sense of responsibility have trouble doing what is prescribed instead of doing what’s best.

Surprisingly, the entrepreneurs who seem to have the fewest problems transitioning work in hotels and executive dining rooms for large corporations, the places with the strictest policies and standards. This may be because these policies are clearly written, so the chef or manager knows precisely what is expected of him, while policy in free standing restaurants may be spoken or just a matter of culture.

Every kitchen has a culture that can become a stumbling block for someone not expecting it.  Having ruled kingdoms of their own, entrepreneurs are not practiced in watching out for the trip wires, territorial issues and occasional obstructionist behavior  in a less than perfect  working world.  The compliment your waitress accepted with a smile in your restaurant can be carried to HR as sexual harassment in someone else’s.  Speaking to a customer wanting a bridal shower without passing it by the Catering Director can lead to internecine wars which end in the last person hired leaving.

And then there are habits and liberties you cannot take on someone else’s dime. You can’t pick up the kids after school, you can’t come a little later on one day a week. Perhaps you can’t make last minute purchasing decisions.

Of course some chefs weren’t prepared in the first place to run a restaurant and taking another chef position after trying unsuccessfully to reinvent the wheel just isn’t going to work.

Knowing this, employers are rarely eager to hire someone they see themselves having to press back under the yoke by force.

“Why did his restaurant fail, if he’s so good?” “If I hire an ex owner, I am just going to have to argue to get what I expect.”  The recently self employed have a well earned reputation for head butting and arrogance, and although you may not engage in either, you are likely to be painted with the same brush as the worst of the bunch.

Sooner or later, these issues work themselves out. Some ex owners take three or five bumps to relearn the art of being employed. Others will later open another  and do better the second round. Some of the most celebrated chefs in America have at least one closing behind them.  It’s a no guts, no glory world, and having the spunk to get up and try again pays off.  The knowledge gained in the first or second restaurant  serves them well in the next.

I’ve no call to give advice here. My experience is vicarious, and anyone who has owned a restaurant knows way more than I ever will about this business, but perhaps a little insight about why you are being told, “Sorry, but you are overqualified,” can help.

Oct 092010

Despite the officially declared recovery I still see a lot more fired or laid off applicants than I did two years ago.  A five star hotel was sold to a company which has no need for a top chef,  a chef arrives in the morning to find the doors closed, a manager finally states her mind about changing policies and is terminated, the company simply no longer can afford the chef’s salary and replaces her with a lower paid subordinate, the new Club President decided it’s time for a change.

What if this happens to you? What do you do, after the initial shock has worn off?

Everyone’s situation is different, but there are some steps you should take.

First, be practical. Request severance pay. You may not get it, but there’s no harm in asking.

File for unemployment. It won’t be a lot, but you can use it to tide you over while you look. Employers don’t like to pay it, and if they can prove that you were terminated for good cause they will not have to.  It is called “unemployment insurance” rather than unemployment entitlement for a reason: You have been paying into the fund for all the  years you worked. If you are offered severance pay instead, do a little math to decide what you want.

Request any compensation still owed you immediately.  California has a law prohibiting  to “Suffer work to be done without compensation.” The law requires that you be paid at the time of termination or within a few days of your own resignation.  You should not wait, and you won’t have to unless the restaurant’s finances are not in order.

If your employer says he cannot pay you now and asks you to wait, you should not.  You are, unfortunately, in a race with other creditors including the government for a finite amount of money. Explain that your pay is due on termination, and you would regret having to go to the Labor Board (which will bring possible fines, so it may have an effect.)  You can try to negotiate a post dated check. Don’t deposit it until you call the bank to which it is issued to ask if there are sufficient funds in the account. Make a copy of the check as proof before you send it in.  If the check bounces, you may be able to place a claim with your local District Attorney’s office. While your pay is a civil matter, a bounced check is a criminal issue.

If you can’t get you back pay, go to the Labor Board. Don’t wait. Time is important.  Most states provide that employees get paid before purveyors and service providers, so if the restaurant is in distress they will be pushing hard to get what’s owed them. To the owner of a failing business needs them and not you, so you need someone on your side.  If vendors or service providers are able to get payment before you, you will see less. I am not a fan of the Labor Board, but this is where they serve a purpose.  You want to be compensated before bankruptcy is declared, before vendors are paid, and before the Federal and State governments claim back taxes.

Don’t give up if the business closes. Just because a business shuts down doesn’t mean that there are no funds to pay  you.  Do not, furthermore, be intimidated into not pursuing what is owed you on grounds that it would be the final straw for a business on the way down. If things are that far along,  your pay won’t make much difference.

Civil claims against employers  have increased tenfold in the past three years, which doesn’t make them a good idea. There are a plenty of attorneys willing to take on wrongful termination cases on a contingency basis, but if you do make a claim,  you had better win, and you will receive less money than the attorney.  Even if you do win, appeals can stretch the case out for months or years, and winning is improbable. Contrary to Labor Board claims, litigation leaves a public record. Few employers hire litigants willingly.

Unless the business is in danger of closing, do not prompt your staff to show solidarity by walking out when you are gone. For one thing, the restaurant is going to be in your history as long as you work, and there’s not much benefit in making them angry. For another, your staff needs the jobs.

If you are referred to an agency which quizzes you on the business’s labor practices or if the Labor Board asks you a list of questions think twice before you try to get even with the employer by complaining about missed breaks or shift pay.  The agency wants to hold the business accountable, but any fines they levy on the restaurants will come out of a finite pool of money, reducing what is available for you. You want the business to do well enough to pay you.

You may be asked to sign a document stating that you left of  your own accord, in return for which, the employer promises a good reference.  Think twice. If you were not terminated for seriously poor conduct, the employer would have to give a fair reference anyway.  If you were terminated for cause, you will not be eligible for unemployment, but you still won’t have any real assurance that the employer will provide a good reference.

Get your insurance in order.  If you have a pre existing condition, you have sixty days to apply for COBRA insurance.  It tends to be expensive. San Francisco residents have access to the City’s insurance, which is not great, but will keep you safe if your appendix acts up.  Some employers are willing to extend insurance even if they terminate the employee.

Line up references. Your company may have a no-reference policy, but people who are no longer with the company usually do not adhere to it.  Friends in the company may also be willing to give references. Line up references from previous employers and subordinates, as well.

Don’t beat  yourself up. People who really should get fired rarely do. Termination happens, and if you messed royally, don’t do it again.   You’re in pretty good company. Remember Nixon? Forced to resign in infamy and then rose to glory? You’ve learned something, and it won’t happen again.

Don’t panic – you will find something else. While it’s a good idea to start to look for a job  as soon as possible, cut yourself a little slack. You probably haven’t had free time for quite a while.  Enjoy it.

Strategize your job search.  Remember that you are looking for a suitable job, not “just any” job, because “just any” jobs have a tendency not to last. Dust off your resume and update it.  Decide what you really want to do and what your boundaries are.

Review your finances and prepare to budget.  You can’t count on finding your next position in a week or two, so decide how  you can stretch your available cash and income for as long as it takes to find a suitable position. The longer you can look, the more freedom you have to turn things down, and having a little cash flow extends your search options.  Offer to do relief work for friends, take short term positions, cater, whatever.  Filler jobs don’t have to be at your level.   Any work is good for driving away the demons that come if you just mope, and you will be in the loop, which  makes finding new positions easier.

Be realistic.  The market has probably changed since you took your last job. I’d say that compensation is down +10% across the board, sometimes more. Culinary focus has shifted from fancy to casual. Be selective in accepting a job, but don’t hold out for fantasy jobs and culinary styles.

Be honest with yourself about what didn’t work at the last position. That’s not easy. I never believe anyone who says, “I have no idea why I was fired.” Sure you do.  Figure out what you learned from it, even if that’s simply that you made a bad choice taking the job.

This is a poor time to drink a lot, no matter how tempting it is. Your career needs you to have a clear mind now.  If you were drinking a lot before you got fired, you might figure out that that’s probably part of the reason. Your call.

It’s better to be on good terms with your ex employers than to have them resent you. You’re going to be running into them and the people there now and then in your future. If someone is not paying you, that won’t be an option, but leaving friends behind always helps in a job search.  Apologize if possible. Thank them for giving you a chance, if you can.  Some employers try hard to help employees they can no longer afford find new jobs.

Have some fun. See friends, get exercise, keep healthy and get enough sleep.   This is not advice from your mother. It will make you interview better.

Keep an open mind and a wide window about opportunities that arise.

Things don’t necessarily happen for the best, but they generally work out.