Where did the thousands of chefs, line cooks and servers buzzing around Silicon Valley’s corporate kitchens go after the pandemic closed campuses 19 months ago?
Los Gatos restaurateur Alex Hult doesn’t know, adding yet another thorn in his side working in an industry plagued by constant hiring, training and turnover.
“HELP WANTED” signs are pasted in windows and headlines decrying worker shortages are inescapable, but restaurant owners and managers say a “death spiral” ecosystem behind the scenes of restaurants will take more than wooing staff through their doors with higher wages.
Hult, founder and CEO of Flights restaurants, has reimagined his Bay Area operations with more tech-driven service and boosted wages in the meantime, but he says unaffordable child care, health care and overall costs of living have driven his industry’s workers both physically out of Silicon Valley and into better paying fields. Some restaurant workers shared anecdotes about spoiled younger folks without any drive, while others just aren’t looking to keep grinding in front of a hot stove all day for cheap.
But those aren’t dilemmas with Hult’s crew working at the fifth Flights location in Las Vegas, who he says are able to comfortably work five days across from the Bellagio fountain and pay their mortgages, since its opening in July 2019.
On top of that issue, the former hockey player-turned-foodie has to somehow balance his books while paying double for shipments of food, hours of people’s time and culinary tools while not increasing menu prices so much that he loses diners.
“It's basically survival trying to get through,” Hult says. “The market is out of whack right now, and I don't know if it’s going to ever normalize. This is all going to start a cycle downwards, I think. It’s pretty alarming.”
Hult predicts even decades-old restaurants will start going out of business once the government’s PPP loans, revitalization funds and tax credits that have subsidized a “blood line” for the industry fizzle out. He should know; he took over the former Mountain Charley’s venue as a partner in Immersive: Los Gatos.
Hult says increasing minimum wages is a must so his employees can survive, but without another functioning business model in place, Hult says too much blame has been focused on restaurants not paying workers enough.
“I would love to pay all my employees $30 or $40 an hour, but then they wouldn't have a job six months later,” Hult says. “I also don’t want them to have to work two jobs for five or six days a week, sleep a few hours and come back and do it again. That’s not a life—that’s not sustainable.”
'Good to be Selfish'
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 280,000 positions were added to the leisure and hospitality sector in March, but its unemployment rate remained around 13%. Data show that there are millions of empty job openings without enough job seekers to fill them.
That’s why Saad Malik, a biomedical engineering student at San Jose State University and waiter at a Bay Area pizza joint, says he and his colleagues feel like they have more authority to decide if a job is worth it—from covering hectic shifts for flaky coworkers and sacrificing dignity being accosted by obnoxious customers, to risking increased exposure to getting Covid-19. Being understaffed in a pizza shop isn’t as extreme as what people are experiencing in Amazon warehouses or Kellog’s cereal manufacturing plants, the 19-year-old says, but the stressful aspects of the job should still be addressed.
“I feel like I don't have any help and it causes a lot of tension,” Malik says. “It does seem like I am getting screwed over, because the pay should be a little bit more if there’s not many staff there.”
He’s not sure this mentality would’ve taken over without the pandemic laying bare wage imbalances.
“It’s good to be selfish, because if you’re just going to settle, it’s not going to be right,” he says. “I think that’s why people are now starting to incorporate that sense of ‘my worth.’ If other people can do that, why can’t I do that, too?”
In San Pedro Square, Bob Cina is down to half the number of staff he employed at District wine, whiskey and cocktail bar before the pandemic. The culinary director and executive chef partner chuckles when talking about how restaurant gigs have always been grueling and low-paying, recalling his almost three decades working in Bay Area kitchens.
He’s noticed that younger workers are prioritizing higher earning job opportunities in what he called a generational shift—slashing the number of servers, line staff, drivers and producers that send in applications.
“There is so much opportunity out there that maybe they can switch occupations or look into something different,” he says. “Back when I was very young, every single person I worked with had this drive and love for cooking, and I feel like you don't see that as much anymore. It’s sort of been over-glorified on television shows.”
Financially, Cina says the restaurant industry’s vendors are doubling prices of produce and supplies—flank steak, dairy, frying oil, Topo Chico in the glass bottles. Cina’s hands are sometimes tied to recovering costs through higher priced menus.
Cina says District is only open five days a week to maintain staffing levels, yet estimates he’s pulling his hair out one of those days. Cina’s been asking himself for years how anyone is supposed to escape and gain financial traction in the industry. At this point, he doesn’t have a clue when to expect his days to get any easier.
“It’s just a shit show all the way around,” Cina says. “We have to produce food and get plates out to people, the same way we would have to if there was a full staff. It's difficult, but it’s like being in show business—the show must go on.”
No One Is Happy
When managers like Hult and Cina can’t hire more staff, toxic work environments are prompting the people still on payroll to consider finding new work. A September report from the nonprofit One Fair Wage and UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center reported 53% of service workers were considering leaving due to low wages, while 78% said their employment in restaurants was contingent on living wages on top of tips.
That’s the exact experience plaguing one local barista, who was hesitant to have their name printed by San Jose Inside, nervous of possible retaliation or a lost job.
They recalled shifts when managers refused breaks to “push through” peak hour customer rushes, eventually only granting 10 minutes during a 8-hour shift in order to tackle the shift’s seemingly tasks and requirements.
“There’s too many customers, not enough staff to take care of them and then people get upset,” they said. “No one is happy about that—not the customers and not the workers. It’s exhausting, that’s not how it should be.”
The animation student is glad more people are talking about labor issues, especially when making monthly rent payments is sometimes tricky at the apartment they share with three other roommates near campus. A recent raise didn’t make much of a big difference.
“A lot of people quit their jobs, spent a lot more time with themselves and started caring more about their own well being,” they said. “Before it was like, ‘Oh well, everything's shit but you just have to deal with it,’ and I think that's messed up. Now people are normalizing the fact that these are basic human rights and things that you deserve to have as a worker.”
From an owner’s perspective, Hult predicts that the South Bay’s eateries that manage to keep their lights on will be the ones who can afford to pay higher wages and raise prices.
“That’s how the system gets fixed,” Hult says, “but it's going to be on the backs of the little people, which is what I hate.”