Restaurant owners 'Talk Shop' with celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson in Detroit
Celebrity chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson returned to Detroit Tuesday to host “Talk Shop Live,” a panel discussion at the Gem Theatre focused on the shortage of skilled labor in the restaurant industry and how to stay successful in such a competitive field.
Produced by US Foods, a national foodservice distributor, the panel was part of a tour with Samuelsson having similar discussions across the country.
In Detroit on Tuesday, Samuelsson — who recently visited Detroit and Dearborn for a new PBS show "No Passport Required" — interviewed a panel of successful Detroit restaurant owners including Lisa Ludwinski of Sister Pie in West Village, Maxcel Hardy of River Bistro and Coop, and Kiki Louya of Corktown’s Folk restaurant and Farmer’s Hand grocery store. All three chefs are Metro Detroit natives who left Detroit at one point and returned to open businesses.
A few hundred chefs and restaurant owners from around Metro Detroit were in the audience.
Recurring themes in the conversation were the importance of listening to staff members and paying attention especially to younger people who are fresh out of culinary school.
“I make sure today, when I'm not so young, that I have a young member (on staff) that can teach me other skills,” said Samuelsson. “We learn … how to work a pasta machine, but maybe five years from now there will be a pasta robot … we need to know that. We don't know the next challenge is.”
When asked how restaurant owners can stay ahead, Louya said the answer is “pretty simple.”
"My business partner Rohani (Foulkes) and I, we never believe that we are too proud to not listen to someone else," she said. "It doesn’t matter if it’s the dishwasher or someone who’s been cooking for 50 years more than we have. We can learn something from everyone if we listen … really listening to people and having an open line of communication."
The panel also talked about building the kind of staff and kitchen culture that they wanted to be a part of in terms of diversity and respect.
Louya said she and Foulkes in the past had worked in kitchens where verbal abuse was the norm.
“We were demeaned and yelled at, and it was something we didn’t want,” she said.
Ludwinski, who said she's been successful in hiring people who live within walking distance of Sister Pie, was able to increase her production by creating a new culture in her café.
“We kind of limited the hierarchy of positions,” she said. “Everyone comes in each day and there’s one list and it involves everything that needs to happen and they all work together to make it happen.”
It's been reported that there is a shortage of well-trained staff in Metro Detroit's restaurant scene, and the same is true nationally. According to US Food, because of the restaurant industry's growth, an estimated 1.7 million new restaurant positions are expected to be created by 2025.
The panel discussed a variety of ways to find and retain quality staff members. Ludwinski pointed out that if you simply put a "hiring" sign in the window, your business will possibly attract someone who lives locally, and employees who live close by are less likely to be late and will have a better idea of what people in the neighborhood are looking for in a restaurant.
Chef Hardy, who owns and operates River Bistro in the Rosedale Park area of Detroit and Coop inside the Detroit Shipping Company in Midtown, says he's had luck hiring people who went through training programs after being released from prison.
"They have a certain level of commitment and passion behind it," he said of returning citizens. "Their creativity is really dope, they're cooking some really cool stuff."
When asked what advice they have in general for those starting out in the restaurant business, Ludwinski suggested talking to as many people as possible about your vision, especially people in the neighborhood you are opening in and be open with your staff about your dreams and hopes.
Hardy said he regretted not reaching out to organizations like Food Lab Detroit and Detroit Food Academy sooner and taking advantage of their resources.
Louya’s advice was more finance-minded.
“Know your numbers,” she said. “For me, that is the most essential advice. If you don’t know what it costs to run a restaurant, it’s not going to run.”