5 Ways to Battle the Chef Shortage

It’s no secret. I think we all have heard by now, there is a “shortage in qualified cooks and chefs” across Ontario, in Canada, in the USA, and overseas in the UK.

Even the Canadian Federation of Independent Business says “a lack of qualified applicants is the biggest issue for entrepreneurs and concerns about the quality & work ethic of new hires suggests a worrisome trend ahead for Canada’s workforce.”

So it’s not JUST the food & beverage industry, it’s many others as well.  Younger people (millennials) are looking for the quick buck instead of investing in their future, and working hard to get ahead. It’s as simple as that.

But it isn’t just young people. Owning a restaurant has become easier since the economy recovered, and they are opening at a rate that the pool of qualified cooks just can’t keep up with.

With that said, let’s stop complaining, let’s stop feeding excuses, and let’s collectively come up with winning solutions…today!

This lack of great cooks but also the pressure to pay them higher wages is forcing us to change the industry. We need to stop competing for “cheap”, and start competing on “value”; both inside the kitchen and in our end product.

Key Restaurant Group has consulted on solutions with some properties that have resulted in a decrease in labor turnover, a generated pool of qualified kitchen talent, and solutions that many thought would lead to a decrease in guests and increase in costs, but simply was not the case.

These solutions may not be for every concept and size of kitchen, but it’s a start, and we must start thinking outside the box. I welcome you to leave your thoughts and ideas as well.

Create a Training System | It starts from the top. Your lead chef should be continuously training, leading, and improving their team. Staff are motivated by challenges. Create operating systems, create achievable personal goals (S.M.A.R.T), and review after the given time-frame. Allot specified time each week for training to empower your team through education.

Create a Pay Scale | The days of paying skilled, educated, and experienced cooks just over minimum wage needs to come to an end. We need to start seeing at least a $15 per hour, starting wage, for cooks. They are in fact creating the dishes your guests are there to enjoy. Why are servers making considerably more after tips? Let your team know when reviews will be done and when wages will increase. Again, you’re setting goals for achievement. Show them the path to success.

Culinary Scholarships | Consider starting a program that offers to help pay for culinary education. Once a candidate passes their three month probation, discuss an opportunity for them to take their learning to a new level. You will also learn if they plan to have a long tenure with you and if they are worth investing in. Work with your local schools or ones within your general region.

Create a Positive Environment | The perception of working in a commercial kitchen is slammed all the time. The hours, the pay, and often (sadly) the ongoing harassment. Create an energized environment, create flexible hours, and enforce rules of conduct. More than half (52 percent) of the Millennial workforce have said “working in a healthy environment” is influential to where they choose to work. Give them a reason! Once you have done this, create a “stay interview” – why your staff love working for you. Create a video and market it!

Better Tip-Out Programs | Most restaurants take an average 1-2% of tips for their kitchen staff. We have found that 4-5% is achievable and fair. Servers still on average earn 5-10% or more depending on establishment. Additionally, set up financial goals for your head chef. If they control food costs to a desirable level, reward them. If you tell your staff your goal this month is to generate $100,000 in revenue and you generate $110,000, reward them. Create a team-oriented environment.

Once you have formulated this mindset, and designed these programs, promote it. Get your staff to talk about it, get them to help in your recruitment efforts, create a story on your website & menu, showcase your staff everywhere possible (social media), and finally invest in their future for the sake of yours!

The biggest argument to the above is time and financial resources. Time…is just an excuse. Financial resources…is just an excuse. Control your costs (don’t cut) and increase your perceived value.

Humanizing a dish takes it out of the realm of being a commodity. Satisfy your customers’ needs for healthy, inventive, creative, sustainable and interesting food, beverages, and experiences.  Studies have indicated that 48% of guests are willing to pay more for food and beverage items that are “fresh” and 37% would do the same for “premium” food and drink options.

Don’t compete for cheap, compete for value. Don’t be scared to raise your prices slightly to offset the above costs. If we can all collectively come up with solutions, it will make the industry more inviting and it will create more enrollment in culinary education. With proper planning, execution, branding, and marketing…it can be done, but it starts with you.