Restaurant owners struggle with labor shortages

Food & Beverage

A look through the window of Sargento’s production plant in Plymouth. Due to food safety regulations, only Sargento employees are allowed inside. Credit: Maredithe Meyer

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

Dan Sidner moved to Milwaukee in 2004, coming to the city after a career working at restaurants on the West Coast and in resort towns in Colorado and North Carolina.

When he and business partner chef Joe Muench opened Maxie’s on the city’s west side in 2007, and later Blue’s Egg and Story Hill BKC, Sidner felt Milwaukee was as good a city as any where he had worked to find employees.

Matthew Martin, corporate director of talent acquisition for Marcus Hotels & Resorts, at Mason Street Grill. Martin said this is the most difficult labor market he has seen in 28 years.
Credit: Lila Aryan Photography

But as Milwaukee has experienced a surge in new restaurants opening and the unemployment rate has dipped, Sidner and many other restaurateurs are finding it difficult to staff their establishments.

And similar to how the manufacturing industry has struggled to fill its workforce, the restaurant industry is challenged to not only find employees, but also fill its pipeline with qualified, reliable workers.

“I still think we are better off than a lot of markets, but the circumstances now are much worse,” Sidner said. “There are still some great people in the market, but there’s lots of competition for those great people.”

Sidner spent several years working in Colorado, where he said restaurants are opening at an even faster rate than in Milwaukee. But population growth is flatter here, making it even more difficult for existing restaurateurs to find good employees.

“There are 10,000 people moving to the Front Range of Colorado,” Sidner said. “We’re getting hit from both ends. Far more restaurants than even three years ago, and a population that has not grown.”

Many of the area restaurant owners and chefs have partnered with Milwaukee Area Technical College, which offers degree programs in culinary arts, culinary management, baking and pastry arts, hotel/ hospitality management and meeting and event management, to find talent.

MATC’s program has been in place for more than 50 years and has graduated dozens of the city’s top chefs and restaurant owners, including Muench; Joe and Paul Bartolotta, owners of Bartolotta Restaurant Group LLC; Karen Bell, chef and owner of Bavette La Boucherie; Andy Schneider, chef and owner of Le Reve; and Brian Ward, chef and owner of Point Burger Bar and Ward’s House of Prime.

John Reiss, a chef and culinary instructor at MATC, said what restaurateurs are experiencing in Milwaukee is a national problem.

Restaurants are looking for new avenues to find workers.
Credit: Lila Aryan Photography

“The business is tough because the pay isn’t that high, the benefits aren’t that great, it is a physically demanding job and you are working when everyone else is going out,” Reiss said. “It takes a certain kind of person to do that. Anytime the employment rate goes up, there will be pressures filling the jobs.”

MATC’s enrollment, like most colleges and technical schools across the country, is down because employment is up.

“We had a ton of students in 2010, but we are not at capacity anymore,” Reiss said. “There are more job requests than we can possibly fill, but we do everything we can to get students in the workplace.”

Andy Menchal, director of operations for MojoFuco Inc., who oversees Comet Cafe, Hi Hat Lounge, The Garage and Balzac Wine Bar, said while the restaurant boom in Milwaukee has been phenomenal to see, the talent pool has been diluted.

Enrollment of MATC culinary programs is down.
Credit: Lila Aryan Photography

“We have been successful in retaining people and promoting from within, so you can start as a dishwasher and bartend a year or two later,” Menchal said. “But it has definitely gotten more competitive. You have to find other avenues to find employees. A couple of years ago you might have posted on (job site Now, you are boosting your posts to fill positions. It becomes a challenge to find good people who want to stay in this industry.”

Matthew Martin, corporate director of talent acquisition for Milwaukee-based Marcus Hotels & Resorts, said hiring is cyclical, but he has never experienced workforce shortages this extreme.

“Everybody is posting positions,” Martin said. “You walk into a Starbucks and they are having a hiring event. New technologies are helping the process, but the real challenge is getting people into the funnel.”

Martin has been involved in the Milwaukee Public Schools ProStart Program. Four MPS high schools participate in the two-year culinary program, which uses curriculum created by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation for high school students.

“Right now, there are two factors. So many jobs need to be filled, and people who don’t want to participate in the workforce,” Martin said.

Even in areas that might have a higher level of unemployment, there are factors keeping people out of the workforce, or not providing the pathways, that many people take for granted, Martin said.

“We have made such strides in the last year and come so far,” Martin said. “A lot has been the contributions of people around the table like Bartolotta, Potawatomi, VISIT Milwaukee and White Lodging. I feel like there has been a paradigm shift to support the communities.”

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