Target to open small-format store in Midtown Detroit

Michigan restaurants scramble to fill jobs

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

When Big Boy Restaurant International took over a former franchise in Brighton that had closed, the company faced more than just the challenge of renovating the restaurant and getting it ready to reopen.

“We had a terrible time finding people to hire,” said Keith Sirois, chief executive officer of the company. “We had to send managers to wash dishes and things.”

Line cook Lorenzo Munus prepares salads in the kitchen at Bacco Restorante in Southfield during the lunch time rush. Restaurants are facing a hiring crisis for dishwashers, line cooks and prep cooks.

Restaurants all across Michigan are facing a hiring crisis for back-of-the-house employees, including dishwashers, line cooks and prep cooks, because as the economy improves, there are more of these positions available even as there are more jobs available in general. This means people are less likely to choose these high-stress jobs that are often low paying with long hours.

“It’s a very difficult balancing act restaurants are trying to figure out,” said Warren Solochek, vice president of client development for food service at the NPD Group. “When you go into a restaurant and wait a really long time for food or it’s not prepared in the right way, you’re not going to be very happy and you’re not going to go back.”

The restaurant industry employs 14 million people nationwide, and remains the second largest private sector employer, according to the National Restaurant Association.

At the same time, 47 percent of family dining establishments, 59 percent of casual dining establishments and 51 percent of fine dining establishments surveyed by the association in 2014 said recruiting and retaining employees was a significant or moderate challenge.

And the problems are the same, regardless of the restaurant type.

Chef Luciano Del Signore, owner and chef of upscale Bacco Ristorante in Southfield, as well as owner of Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina, says he’s faced the same staffing challenges regardless of whether it’s fine dining or fast casual.

“We’ve all experienced it,” said Del Signore. “(More people) are dining out more often and this has created so many more restaurants in our market. And it has put a shortage on how many people are available to us.”

Restaurants are left to fill the gaps with existing staff.

“The cook has to work double or triple the amount of time a waiter does to get the same amount of dollars,” said Del Signore, who says he has had a hard time finding good staffers. “It’s forcing restaurateurs to really create better benefits, retirement packages to retain people and to try and become more attractive in the marketplace.”

Even the Detroit Tigers had a hard time finding people to fill restaurant jobs, says Scott Storbeck, a chef at the Tigers Champions Club restaurant at Comerica Park.

He works with a team of 18 people handling three venues at the park and serving about 600 per night. He says he would need to have at least 25-30 staffers to make things run as smoothly and efficiently as possible at the restaurant.

Because of the seasonal and part-time nature of the work, he hires people who don’t have cooking experience and trains them on the job.

“We have 45,000 people we serve a night at 10 to 12 different venues around the park,” he said. “It’s a lot.”

Even though some people might think it would be glamorous to work at a ballpark restaurant, Storbeck says people don’t always understand the nature of the job.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about our industry. People think they can go to culinary school and be an executive chef their first day,” he said. “When they find out what it really is, they stop coming in.”

Even as a recovering economy boosts the number of people going to restaurants, it’s also had an effect on who works in them, Solochek says.

“When recessions come, you see people who have a high level of skills who lose their jobs. They become waitresses, waiters, baristas, cooks, whatever,” Solochek said. “Then the economy improves and those people go back to the jobs they once had. Then all of a sudden you have all these shortages.”

Bacco Ristorante Chef Luciano Del Signore says he has had a hard time finding good staffers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an estimated 363,130 people worked in the food service industry in Michigan as of May 2014, and earned an average of $10.06 an hour, compared to the statewide average of $21.70 an hour for all industries. Food service jobs included include everything from chefs and head cooks, to dishwashers, dining attendants and restaurant hosts and hostesses.

The restaurant industry has traditionally been a starting point for teens and young adults breaking into the working world. But the National Restaurant Association says that is changing. According to the 2014 survey, the number of 16-19-year-olds working in restaurants dropped 4.4 percentage points to 16.5 percent.

This is partly due to changing perceptions, says Sirois.

“There tends to be a view of our industry that is very negative. Younger people are hesitant to go into the industry, when in fact the industry is terrific,” he said. “I started in the ’60s as a dishwasher and I have been the CEO of two companies. You don’t see that in other industries but you do in ours.”

But that path has become less common, says Chef Shawn Loving, chair of the culinary department at Schoolcraft College in Livonia.

“There used to be a time that an individual could start off as a bus attendant and could work up to being a manager and it would be an honorable thing,” said Loving, who has been with the college for nine years and owned the Loving Spoonful restaurant in Farmington Hills before that. “No one wants to put in the time. You have more of a hop, skip and jump process. Nobody thinks they need to build up a portfolio anymore.”

The high visibility of celebrity chefs on TV and in magazines is giving unrealistic expectations to young people, says Tom Recinella, program director at the Culinary Institute of Michigan at Baker College’s Port Huron campus.

“We get a lot of students who come who have never even cooked anything but they’ve watched these shows on TV,” said Recinella, who has been in the restaurant business for 32 years. “You’re going to get a LeBron James once in a while who comes out of the gate and makes a ton of money. But it’s an exception, rather that the rule.”

The Michigan Restaurant Association is part of a two-year high school program, ProStart, to get students nationwide interested in a career in the food industry. Students are taught kitchen skills such as food safety and an annual skills competition is held.

Selene Toliver, a ProStart instructor with the Oakland Schools Technical Center’s Royal Oak Campus, says students leave with as many as five certifications in the food service industry before they ever attend college or a culinary program.

“We show them the career options. We don’t expect every single person in our classes to become chefs,” said Toliver. “But they will learn skills that will help propel them in this field.”

lrazzaq@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2127

@laurenarazzaq