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The articles continue to flow pointing to a real dilemma that is facing the restaurant world. Everyone has an opinion on why this is so and many are free to point fingers at this potential cause or another. So, to put this to bed, from my perspective, here are some thoughts.

There is plenty of blame to go around, but no one cause is evident as the definitive culprit. If it were that easy, then the solution would be as well. Regardless of where we collectively point the finger, this is a problem that will have significant ramifications for a long time and may contribute to a complete overhaul of the business of preparing and serving food. Let’s take a moment to identify what has occurred over the past few decades to bring us to this juncture and in doing so start to envision a way out.

[]         MUCH OF THE FAULT LIES WITH THE INDUSTRY: Now before everyone runs right to the issues of compensation (certainly a huge factor), hear me out. At some point in time, maybe forty years ago, the restaurant industry gave up on real training and turned over this responsibility to culinary schools. Now, those schools welcomed this responsibility and built an educational empire around it. As a result, the expectation is that graduates would enter the restaurant ready to hit the ground running without need for any serious training. When the reality of the job hits that student squarely in the face, things would often begin to fall apart. First off, after incurring sizable debt from two to four years of college, these graduates were less willing to start as a prep or line cook – expecting a sous chef position or higher. When this didn’t happen there was disappointment on both ends.

There was a time when restaurants knew that to develop strong cooks and eventually chefs, they needed to make a commitment to training – building skills gradually through formal or informal apprenticeships until the individual had earned the opportunity to take on more and more responsibility. This commitment to training would build stronger teams, realistic expectations, loyalty, and longevity. Without this commitment we have created a situation comparable to free agency in professional sports. Cooks move around based on who will pay them the most or move them up the career ladder as quickly as possible.

Secondly, the industry as a whole has done very little to market reasons why young people might consider a career in the kitchen. Instead, we have allowed television to do this through their exaggerated, and some times ridiculous modeling of what it is like to work in restaurants and be a chef. In the end, many young people enter the business or enroll in school with misguided expectations.

We (restaurants) should be in schools early on (elementary school) talking about the work, the opportunities, the challenges, and the process of becoming a cook. Forget the competitions, we should invest time in making an impression through support of school cafeteria programs and building a culture of food enthusiasm at an early age. Look to the food operations in elementary schools in Europe as an example to consider. We (restaurants and the National Restaurant Association) should invest time in helping elementary and secondary teachers portray the value of great food preparation. Help local schools arrange field trips to farms, build school gardens, get students involved in growing and harvesting, and tasting real food.

We, as an industry, should lobby for the return of home economics classes to elementary school curriculum. This is an important life skill that will build on that appreciation for food and in turn the important role that cooks play in society. If their only exposure to food preparation is watching “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Chopped”, then we are allowing a disservice to take place of epic proportions.

[]         THE CULINARY SCHOOL DILEMMA:

Consider the exponential growth of culinary schools over the past forty years and then think about the competitive dilemma that has been created. Schools responded with enthusiasm to try and meet the needs of a growing restaurant industry. Following the success of a handful of schools in the late seventies and early eighties, the number of programs has grown to over 1,000. Every one of these schools invested heavily in facilities and equipment to support programs that also demanded small student to faculty ratios. You can’t teach cooking classes to a group of 30 students. Class size in most programs is 18 or less requiring more faculty members to cover sections. As more and more programs started up, the need to fill seats to support the investment drove many schools to soften their admissions standards and heavily discount tuition that had risen significantly. This made it more and more difficult for students to afford the cost of education without taking out crippling loans, which they did.

In an effort to maximize the cost of finding students, some colleges implemented baccalaureate degrees emphasizing that they were preparing students for a faster track to that management position while at the same time driving student debt even further. In the end, when students graduated, the majority were faced with starting on the line at $12-$15 an hour, a longer road to the top than they expected, and an inability to pay back student loans. You see the vicious cycle that has emerged.

When major schools begin closing their doors because they are unable to keep this cycle up or meet the expectations of government for viable employment compensation packages that match the debt incurred, then we can see a system begin to crumble.

[]         THE COMMITMENT OF TIME:

I have never bought this as a problem that needs lots of attention, but that’s just me. I believe that any career that provides opportunity for growth requires individuals to immerse themselves in it and dedicate more time than a typical forty-hour week. However, I have never met a chef who is told when or how much to work. More often than not, the excessive schedules that chefs work is based on what they feel is necessary, they want to work, or they fear is necessary because their team is unable to meet expectations without them. This needs to be addressed and should be viewed as a result of insufficient management and leadership training.

[]         THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM – COMPENSATION:

Of course, almost anyone who works can claim that they do not get paid enough. The larger question is – how much is the position worth and how much can the business afford to pay. The food business is a low margin business and as such can only afford to pay so much in a labor-intensive industry. The pie is only so big. This being said, an industry that does not figure out a solution to poor benefit packages will always find employees viewing their job as temporary. This is a larger issue than salary or rate of pay.

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We can scratch our heads and point to the effects of the problem and feel that someone needs to fix this, or we can begin to act on collaborative solutions. Here are some thoughts:

[]         BRING BACK APPRENTICESHIPS IN HOTELS AND LARGER RESORTS: We need to take back some of the responsibility for training.

[]         PARTNER WITH CULINARY SCHOOLS: Work with your local and regional culinary programs to provide structured internships and externships that bring real-life experiences to their programs.

[]         VISIT YOUR LOCAL ELEMENTARY AND HIGH SCHOOLS: Offer to work, on occasion, with their cafeteria crew as a guest chef, support classrooms with field trip planning and maybe even that school garden. Show up in your chef whites and demonstrate pride in the profession.

[]         PLAY AN ACTIVE ROLE IN THE NATIONAL RESTAURANT ASSOCIATION AND AMERICAN CULINARY FEDERATION: Press for more active marketing to young people about the opportunities that exist in food careers.

[]         REALIZE THAT THE KITCHEN IS LIKELY TO CHANGE IN THE FUTURE: Out of necessity (costs of labor and ever-increasing government controls on food production) we will need to find ways to decrease the number of staff members needed while increasing the skills that they will be required to have. This is the only way that salaries and benefit packages will improve.

Pointing finger at others will not solve this challenge. Reliance on restaurants as part of the American lifestyle is continuing to increase and will result in steady growth in the number of restaurants from coast to coast. Without the right staff to make this work, our industry will not be able to meet the challenges of this opportunity.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training