Jun 212013

It is hard to believe our last industry report  was in 2011, but with a continuing same old/same old depressing and depressed economy, there really didn’t seem to be much reason for it.

During the two years since the availability of space from failing restaurants and landlords willing to negotiate generous lease terms just to have some income has led to a lot of new restaurants, hotel occupancy has picked up, if not quite at the old height, and hotels have begun to open new restaurants with the aim of attracting food focused guests. This has brought a rising job market and a decreased labor pool. During the past two months the job market has turned upside down. Restaurants in New York, DC, San Francisco, LA, Seattle, Chicago and San Diego are vying for qualified staff at all levels, with the most perceivable lack of staff at the lower positions.

The proof is a sudden demand for pastry chefs, the canaries in the coal mine, who were the first to be laid off in 2005 and are now in short supply for a rising demand. Employers who had to cut back (many hotels gave up pastry chefs altogether. Fewer employers allowed pastry assistants) once again see the value of pastry in a competitive environment for butts in seats. The assistants who would have grown into pastry chefs do not exist.

More new restaurants, existing restaurants hiring more staff, hotels shifting from survival mode to competition,  and a depleted pipeline due short staffed kitchens have  reversed the labor to job ratio.

The recent economy has, furthermore, shown smart cooks and chefs the value of stability and commitment as opposed to the risk of leaving safe jobs for new adventures. Fewer chefs are willing to move on.

The wealth created by the widening income gap has created more households of the size and income to require private chefs, removing considerable talent from the available professionals.

The rising cost of living in most culinary centers has created a disincentive for young chefs to circulate between them. Often the educational debt they carry from their training combined with the cost of changing location makes the migration of culinary talent impossible for many.

The result is a rising demand for skilled and experienced culinary talent. A request we sent out for a Michelin Star hotel on the San Francisco Peninsula willing to train any cooks to their standards found no takers in four weeks.

The greatest demand is for cooks and sous chefs, as is always the case. While the offered compensation is currently rising only slowly, we can expect to see considerably higher wages if job/labor pool imbalance continues.

Chefs are demanding and often receiving much higher compensation than that for which they would have settled two years ago. With multiple job offers for chefs on their way up (sous chefs and chefs de cuisine), young culinarians have bargaining power they did not enjoy just a short time ago.

Employers seem to be aware of the situation on the whole and ready to consider reasonable demands.

What does this mean for the job seeker?

–        Currently employed candidates are still more attractive than those between jobs.

–        The increased number of availabilities does not mean that every chef or sous chef will have multiple offers. Since each position requires a distinct skill set, the ideal combination may not appear for months or a year.

–        Changing positions is not as risky as it was a few months ago. If a new position does not work out, at least if you are in a culinary center, something else is more likely to come along in a reasonable period.

–        Increased need of talent means that career building culinary professionals have the luxury of choice. The next job that comes along will not be the last one.  The option of turning down jobs permits more conscientious and successful career building.

–        For those interested in raising the level of their positions to better kitchens, right now is the sweet spot. Many high end kitchens are prepared to take cooks with solid basic skills and attitudes and train them to their standards. The current job overflow offers a unique opportunity to “move up”. Cooks who are interested in a specific kitchen can often circumvent job posting sites and apply directly. The chances of finding an opportunity are as high as they have been for many years.

–      Employers are still extremely selective when choosing kitchen leadership.

–        Any aspiring chef who wants to try his or her hand in another city will find it much easier to make the move than it would have been only a short time ago.

For Employers the changed market means:

–        Anyone hiring candidates is in competition with other employers. Offering competitive compensation is advisable. Hiring a below the rising compensation standard puts the restaurant at risk of having employees “pirated” by others. There is a certain amount of this occurring on the East Coast at this time.

–        When a good candidate becomes available, employers are wise not to wait with a job offer.

–        This is a good time to review compensation and satisfaction levels of existing employees, who are becoming aware of the changing market.

Unchanged rules of engagement:

We assume that the country’s economic recovery will continue, but we are not sure. The last two decades have shown the volubility of the culinary job and labor markets. Whatever happens, the basic rules of engagement have not changed. Courtesy and respect is still necessary when dealing with employers.

Chefs report applicants not returning calls, failing to show for appointments and not showing for culinary try out without cancelling. The fact that you no longer need one job does not mean that you can be rude and unprofessional. We are in a tight community. Respecting everyone in it is highly advisable.

As possibility of multiple offers or multiple interview processes increases, it becomes more important to keep professional and considerate relationships with all parties including recruiting firms.  Offending one employer or chef may bleed over into another job process. While complete openness is rarely an option, revealing that you are close to a job offer with another party is only courteous, before you let the company fly you to Dubai.

International imbalance: Developing countries like India, Malaysia and the Philippines have been minting qualified staff for a number of years now. Many of these cooks and kitchen employees are very eager to leave those countries, but are not permitted to work   in the US, Europe, Some Asian Countries  or Canada, unless special visas can be obtained. This is often an arduous process, which few employers are willing to follow. This has given rise to a number of scams, targeting employees globally.

American geographic differences: Even though the major culinary cities are lacking staff, there are plenty of areas where the restaurant market has not picked up and may not for a year. The obvious conclusion is that anyone in a cook, sous or server position can pick up and move to a place where there are more jobs. This is surely true for cook positions, especially for those building their careers in restaurant style environments. There does not, however, seem to be wide reception for seasoned professionals who have settled into food service positions. Any food professional considering moving needs to take the difference in cost of living into consideration before picking up and driving to a more promising location.  This particular and possibly momentary staff shortage does provide rare opportunities for those whose initial desire was simply a trade to enter the A list restaurants in the A List restaurant locations.