Where'd Everybody Go?
Kitchen lines have been understaffed. Now they're starting to look downright deserted.
I'm not saying the book ought to be printed in red ink, but if anyone is looking at an industry suffering from staffing issues at the moment I'd highly recommend reading David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs. Or read the essay that spurred the book. It's free of the avalanching testimony while retaining the heart of the argument.
Having read the extended version myself, a particular testimony comes to mind: one of a young woman explaining how fulfilling it was to work in a daycare. Unfortunately, the sentiment was the beginning of her e-mail to the author. From there she goes on to explain how she stumbled through a series of miserable-but-way-better-paying jobs. She knew if she could’ve gotten by with the daycare gig she’d be much happier. She recognized her calling.
I share the sentiment. Albeit with surlier, more vulgar kids. The grown, cooking variety. Bourdain’s beloved “fringe elements.”
Last week, the Courier-Journal ran an article on the rampant under-staffing in the industry. By no means a new issue, it’s been exasperated by the COVID-induced gap year. A time that provided many time for self-reflection. Time for reassessment. Time to cash in some of that unemployment insurance that’s been syphoning drinking money from our checks.
What the past year also lead to, it seems, was a lot of camel’s-back breaking. Either the laid-off got sick of waiting, the still-working saw more lucrative opportunities, or small owners got squeezed out of PPP funds in favor of large corporations. (Yes, there were those that happily took the money to stay at home. But those people aren’t of much consequence.)
So now that so many professionals are gone, what does that mean for the industry?
It means a lot of restaurants will close their doors in the aftershock of COVID. Being understaffed, as Chef Dallas McGarity told Ghabour and Austin, not only impacts customer satisfaction. It also affects a restaurant’s staff. And it does so in a way that exacerbates a lot of underlying issues. Bloated menus; leadership deficiencies; poor reputation.
But McGarity’s example provides an important qualifier: the aftershock won’t push more businesses into a downward spiral. It’ll just speed up the ones already spiraling. For the sound businesses—like McGarity’s—this staffing issue is a hiccup.
The remaining professionals will inevitably find themselves in one of those kitchens. The cream will rise to the top. And then the long-tumultuous businesses—the ones with chronically-high turnover, with abhorrent management, whose names somehow keep popping up in conversations about bad actors—will try to carry on with greener and greener lines. Or perhaps a coalition of experienced cooks who took the gap year to kick back.
With the weather turning and vaccinations climbing, dining out is coming back into favor. And the impending boom from pent-up diners is likely to make or break a few spots before years’ end.
So keep an eye out. See if you can spot a “good riddance” or two in the comments below the headlines.
[Note: There’s been an elephant marching about in the comment sections, hollering on about the U-word. He’s mad as hell about all those straws his buddy the camel was carrying. Obviously that has a big impact in all of this too. But it’s a sensitive topic for another time. It’s own time.]