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Baltimore restaurateurs search for creative solutions to kitchen labor shortage

Restaurateurs, locally and across the country, are grappling with a shortage of good help in the kitchen and searching for ways to keep his cooks from looking elsewhere for work. It's driven them to try

This is the second in a series of occasional articles exploring issues in restaurants.

Jon Kohler watches his servers rake in $300 most nights at Pairings Bistro, while his kitchen employees take home half that.

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Earlier this year he started tipping out the back of the house, meaning servers split a small portion of their tips with the kitchen staff. But the chef and owner of the Bel Air restaurant wants to do more for his kitchen employees and give them a reason to stay in the often-transient jobs. Now, he's buying a food truck — one his current kitchen staff will operate and whose profits they'll share.

"Chefs bounce around all over the place," Kohler said. "I'm trying to create a situation where they don't need to."

Kohler is among the restaurateurs across the country grappling with a shortage of good help in the kitchen and searching for ways to keep his cooks from looking elsewhere for work. It's driven them to try creative solutions, such as profit sharing and eliminating wait staff to funnel more money to kitchens, as well as more common measures, like offering benefits not always available to restaurant employees.

Still, solid line cooks and sous chefs are hard to come by and even harder to retain. Long hours, low pay and false expectations of celebrity chefdom plague the back of the house, causing high turnover in kitchens in Greater Baltimore and beyond.

"It just seems like there really aren't that many people who are willing to start at the lower level like there were 10 years ago," said Josh Brown, executive chef of the Annapolis-based Fox Boys Hospitality Group. "This is the most transient industry, so I'm expecting every day for somebody to give me [their] notice."

Nationally, 72.1 percent of hospitality employees left their jobs and were replaced in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. High turnover is typical for the industry, which the National Restaurant Association attributes, in part, to its employment of teenagers and students. But it's hard to keep even the most career-driven cooks.

As a second-tier food city, Baltimore faces a steeper challenge.

"A lot of young cooks don't come to Baltimore for their own development or because there are chefs with whom or restaurants within which they want to cook," chef and restaurateur Spike Gjerde said. "So that means we essentially have a very homegrown restaurant scene, and it's unusual for me to see resumes or applications with a lot of experience outside of the city."

Gjerde, a James Beard award-winning chef who owns restaurants including Woodberry Kitchen, Parts & Labor and Artifact Coffee, gets out-of-town applicants occasionally, but he said experience in other cities and apprenticeships under big-name chefs don't indicate candidates' aptitude to thrive at his restaurants.

"Hiring becomes a matter of, for me, finding and attracting the right individual, not so much for the experience or based on their resume, but what they have inside of them," Gjerde said.

The kitchen jobs they have the hardest time filling require more experience — versatile line cooks, bakers and coffee program directors are just a few of the positions Gjerde said he's struggled to fill.

"If ... your attitude is good and you're passionate about the work, it's going to work out," he said of hiring line cooks. "But if we need you to come in and contribute at a higher level right away, that's tougher to find in this city."

Chris Becker, CEO and corporate executive chef of the Bagby Restaurant Group, agreed finding the best cooks for his kitchens often comes down to whether they have the emotional fortitude to succeed, not just the physical capacity.

"Those people have a high success rate of advancement regardless of what career it is," Becker said.

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The Bagby Restaurant Group is feeling the labor shortage everywhere from Bagby Pizza, its fast-casual eatery in Pikesville, to its full-service restaurants in Harbor East and Towson. He said he's looking at ways to proactively adjust his business model to cope with it, whether that means staffing one less cook to increase the pay for others or offering referral bonuses for employees that stay for at least a year. He's also working with local colleges and culinary schools to teach classes and better understand students' skill levels.

Some students don't fully grasp the demands of restaurant work until they've landed their first job. Brown, whose restaurant group includes Fox's Den, Level Small Plates Lounge and Vida Taco Bar, can see new employees' faces crinkle when the realities of kitchen life sink in. He's honest with them from the start, explaining they will work long hours, they'll be in the kitchen when their friends are going out and they'll probably miss major life events.

These days, fewer young cooks are willing to commit to those conditions, he said.

"I let them know that being in a kitchen isn't very glamorous," Brown said. "As soon as you step in, all the romantic ideas have to fall by the wayside."

Much of the romanticism surrounding restaurant work stems from the proliferation of food programming on television and the glorification of celebrity chefs.

"It's pretty frustrating to see a young person come in and have a chip on their shoulder and expect to be a superstar right away," Brown said.

That attitude can be hard to work with, especially for chefs who started washing dishes and worked their way up.

"I've had a guy literally let me know that this was a step on his way to Food Network stardom," Gjerde said.

Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst and foodservice division director for the research firm NPD Group, said she's noticed that culinary school graduates' expectations don't always align with reality, and they shun the idea of starting at the bottom.

"You have to pay your dues," Riggs said. "You have to learn as you go because those other higher-paying [line] jobs or sous chefs — those are going to be filled by experienced people. And you've got to get that experience somewhere."

The average annual salary for a restaurant cook in Maryland is $25,910, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For chefs and head cooks, the average salary is $52,140. Both are slightly higher in Maryland than the national averages.

"The people who go to culinary school, when they get out of school, they expect to get paid really high wages or be in management immediately, where 10 years ago when you were getting out of school you realized that you were going to have to work your way through the pecking order," Brown said.

When cooks and lower-level chefs are serious about growing their careers, restaurateurs often want to see them move on. Brown tells many employees he doesn't expect they'll be in his kitchen in 18 months. During that time, he gives them as many experiences as possible, allowing them to help create menu items and watch them sell or flop.

Gjerde has a similar approach, often hiring staff for a certain time period and not promising employment beyond that.

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"There needs to be a clear path kind of upward and onward, and to be honest, you can't always provide that," Gjerde said. "The upward trajectory of your career path might not always be supported."

Opportunities to grow and teach others have kept Jon Schardt with the Bagby Group for 18 months. Now sous chef at Fleet Street Kitchen, Schardt started as a line cook before being promoted to lead line cook and then his current position.

"My previous job was a turn-and-burn food restaurant," said Schardt, who has worked in kitchens for 12 years. "It didn't take much care and quality in [its] employee and [its] food so I left there to be with one of the restaurants downtown and be the best."

He plans to stay with the group as long as possible, and hopes to eventually own a restaurant, he said.

"What keeps me here is just progression," Schardt said.

Keeping kitchen help often comes down to the same tenets of any workplace: offering competitive pay, benefits and opportunities to advance. Or, In Kohler's case, a food truck.

Kohler is still searching for a truck to buy, but when it gets on the road, he plans to call it the Village Taco Bistro and serve local beef, pork and poultry.

He's got an ad out now looking for new line cooks, hoping the truck will provide some growth for the restaurant, too.

"We're trying to think a little bit ahead," Kohler said. "You always have to have one more staff person than you really need."

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