Local restaurateurs grapple with labor gap amid culinary boom

Workforce Development

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:23 pm

There are two major conversations emerging around Milwaukee’s culinary scene. One, held by restaurant patrons, is about the city’s expanding dining options and award-winning culinary innovations.

The other, held among the chefs and leaders of restaurant groups themselves, revolves around a different issue: finding enough quality employees to keep those expanding options and innovations coming.

“It’s the conversation,” said Susan Terry, vice president of culinary and food and beverage operations at Marcus Restaurant Group, the restaurant division for Milwaukee-based The Marcus Corp. “It’s dominating everybody’s focus and efforts and time. It’s labor, labor, labor.”

As Milwaukee’s culinary scene has blossomed since emerging from the Great Recession, so has its skills gap. Spending statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate consumers – especially those among the millennial generation – are spending less on groceries and more on dining out. And while that is good for restaurants, the demand has put pressure on owners to expand or open new locations, which has, in turn, put stress on the available restaurant workforce.

“This has been brewing for a good five years, and it’s just been getting progressively harder,” Terry said. “Where we typically would post a job for chefs six months or eight months out, we’re now posting up to a year ahead of time. It just takes that much more time to find the types of candidates you’re looking for.”

Several Milwaukee-area restaurants and restaurant groups have announced or launched major expansions or openings in 2016. Colectivo plans to open a restaurant in a former gas station in Wauwatosa; five new restaurants recently opened at the former Pabst Bottling House; Buckley’s restaurant in downtown Milwaukee is planning an expansion; James Beard award finalist Justin Carlisle announced plans to open a taco restaurant in Walker’s Point; and two chefs, one from Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub and one a former chef at Odd Duck and Wolf Peach, recently opened Chinese restaurant Dandan in the Historic Third Ward.

That’s not to mention the three restaurants – ABV Social, Café Grace and Taqueria El Jefe – that The Bartolotta Restaurants opened recently in The Mayfair Collection in Wauwatosa.
And that list is by no means comprehensive.

“When I first got into the business 11 years ago, (the labor situation) wasn’t as bad, but there have just been so many restaurants that have opened,” said Omar Shaikh, co-owner and president of SURG Restaurant Group. “It has been a problem. We run ads in the paper often. We’re always looking for talented people. It’s been a challenge, and I think it’s going to continue to be a challenge.

SURG Restaurant Group co-owner and president Omar Shaikh speaks at the 2015 BizTimes Get Smarter Talent Development Conference.
Omar Shaikh of SURG Restaurant Group.

“I’ve talked to restaurateurs in other cities and they all seem to be suffering from the same issues that we do. It’s a matter of finding good people. You can hire bodies to put in there, but are they going to be dependable, willing to learn, etc.?”

Restaurateurs have been adopting different strategies to address their industry’s skills gap while simultaneously trying to prevent burnout among their existing employees. Shaikh said that, at one point, he was forced to rotate chefs among SURG’s downtown locations and a new location in Brookfield, where he was struggling to hire employees.

“It’s not every day that a qualified, really good chef with a great attitude walks through your doors,” Shaikh said. “So if you want quality, you’re going to have to pay for it these days.”

In an effort to get a strong restaurant industry talent pipeline pumping in Milwaukee, SURG and Bartolotta Restaurants announced in February they were partnering with Milwaukee Public Schools and other local restaurateurs to expand a pilot food preparation and service management program at four high schools.

Similarly, Marcus Restaurant Group hired a corporate executive earlier this year who is in charge of building a training program for new hires.

“This is going to be something that’s going to be growing over time,” Terry said. “It’s still in its infancy stages, but we do have solid on-property training programs.”

Marcus also has been trying to become as competitive as possible regarding employee benefits to attract the best people it can.

“The cooks and the chefs, they want to put out a good, quality product,” Terry said. “They’re interested in how you’re running your business. If they feel like they’re part of a higher purpose, they’re willing to stay committed to you and your business as well. I think a lot of businesses need to share their stories and be more transparent throughout the organization.

“I think we’ve been less conservative (lately). We’re willing to go outside of traditional boundaries. We’re willing to think outside the box, break down traditional compensation practices and be flexible. If we find the right people, we’re going to find a way to get them into the organization.”

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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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