‘Are you breathing? Hired.’ Why SoCal restaurants are still deeply short-staffed

In the fall of 2021, assistant restaurant manager Jamie Wongaroon witnessed a disgruntled customer scold a host while serving a busy dinner at Uzumaki, the small sushi restaurant she runs in Culver City. The next day, Wongaroon spent about $200 at Restaurant Depot buying a blackboard sign before her shift. She placed one of the signs in front of her and wrote the following message to the customer:

“Most of our employees are new, so treat them well. Thank you for your patience.”

She signed the message with a happy face.

Wongaroon has struggled to find staff for the restaurant for months. She cut off lunch service because there weren’t enough people to keep the restaurant open for two shifts, and four months went by without finding a single person for any open chef and server positions. The employee is judged to be someone Wongaroon can hire and desperately needs to keep.

“I’m afraid he’ll quit because of the injury,” the manager said. “I thought I needed to write a sign so that we don’t have to explain to people that we’re short on staff and it could take longer.”

Uzumaki is just one of thousands of restaurants that still exist struggling to escape the sandpit created by the ongoing pandemic. The lack of full staff has forced many to cut operating hours and shrink menus. Workers are leaving the industry in search of higher wages and better working hours. At a time when the minimum wage is set to rise in Los Angeles on July 1 to more than $16 an hour, restaurants are left in an ever-tighter constraint: how to raise wages for employees, keep up with raw material costs, and keep prices at a level customers can digest.

A January report from National Restaurant Assn. showed that, as of December, nearly 4/5 restaurants nationwide did not have enough staff to meet the needs of customers. In California, data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the state had 102,500 fewer food and beverage jobs in February 2022 than in February 2020, which is a 7% drop overall. .

Sang Yoon, chef and owner of three restaurants Father’s Office and Lukshon, is currently recruiting about a dozen people for various positions, including kitchen assistant, host, bartender, dishwasher and Prepared chef. Two of his restaurants went from being open seven days a week to just five when he reopened his dining rooms last year.

Outside of a restaurant a person passed by

“I don’t blame them,” says chef Sang Yoon of his departed employees. Pictured, location of Yoon’s new Father’s Office on East 2nd Street in downtown LA

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“People ask if we are going back to normal,” Yoon said. “No, and since it is very difficult to find staff, even if there is a need, it will take us longer. I know a lot of people who have left the industry.”

One of Yoon’s former food runner and hawker became a baggage handler at LAX, later moving to Houston. The two chefs moved to Bakersfield and found work in agriculture. Another cook left for a mattress factory.

“I understand, and I don’t blame them,” Yoon said. “The restaurant industry has become an indispensable place for income.”

Tony Esnault, the chef at the Michelin-starred Knife Pleat at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, has struggled to find staff since reopening in the summer of 2020. High-end restaurants are demanding. a certain skill level in the kitchen. up specific stations and tasks for each team member.

Applying all the positions was a challenge, but none more difficult than the dishwasher. The restaurant is still missing two dishwashers, but Esnault and his wife and Knife Pleat co-owner Yassmin Sarmadi say they’re making it work in any way possible.

A woman is sitting and a man in a chef's white suit stands in front of their restaurant.

Chef Tony Esnault, right, and business partner and wife Yassmin Sarmadi are two short dishwashers at Knife Pleat in Costa Mesa. “We are always willing to train so that people enjoy that level of rigor and detail and want to stay,” says Sarmadi.

(Silvia Razgova / For the Times)

“In the past, if you were a good restaurant with a good reputation and a good chef, you would have staff,” says Sarmadi. “We are always happy to train people to have someone enjoy that level of rigor and detail and want to stay. That becomes a challenge. ”

There was a time a few months ago when the kitchen was forced to run for weeks without a dishwasher. Esnault and his team of cooks took turns going into the sink, rinsing the pots and pans they had just used before returning to their kitchens. Managers and servers are also involved.

In the summer of 2021, Knife Pleat’s extensive menu of a la carte dishes has been cut in half. The cooks and sous chefs did the cooking instead of going fast. All sous chefs and managers become side chefs. Everyone cleans their own dishes.

“Without the staff, I wouldn’t be able to do what we did before,” says Esnault. “That’s impossible.”

Sarmadi and Esnault paid for job postings on the job sites Craigslist and Indeed to no avail. They used the handle on the restaurant’s social network to advertise. Nothing works. Before the pandemic, Sarmadi said four out of 10 scheduled job interviews would not be available. Over the past two years, that number has grown to eight out of ten.

“Any recruitment becomes a total joke,” she said. “We don’t expect anyone to show up anymore, and if they did, we’d have let our guard down.”

Restaurateur Kwini Reed said that in the fall of 2021, she was spending about $3,000 a month on Indeed job postings for various positions at her and her husband, chef Michael Reed’s, two restaurants: Poppy + Rose in downtown LA and Poppy & Seed in Anaheim. .

“Even if people don’t show up for their interviews, I still get charged for the vacancies,” says Kwini Reed. “I got to the point of, ‘If you just walk through the door, I’ll hire you. Are you breathing? You know how to say hello? Rented. ‘”

At Poppy & Seed, Reeds opened a seasonal restaurant with the intention of changing the menu frequently. Instead, the lack of well-trained staff and high turnover mean having to stick to a menu that the kitchen can make.

“We were slow to change the menu because of the learning curve in the kitchen and the servers had to sell new items on their doorstep,” she said.

The pressure and required work hours of existing kitchen staff took a toll on the team and payroll at Camphor, a new restaurant in the downtown Arts District. Owner Cyrus Batchan says his two executive chefs, Max Boonthanakit and Lijo George, are often in the kitchen until 3 a.m. preparing food for the next day.

Some menu items, such as chicken, are too advanced to be delivered to a cook without proper training and experience. Slaughtering a chicken requires a precise technique to remove the skin. If done incorrectly, critical components will be wasted. Two chefs typically break up 100 pounds of chicken after an eight- to 10-hour shift.

“If they make a mistake, the chefs will have to come in the next morning and start over,” says Batchan. “And we’ll waste food, too.”

A smiling man and woman sit at the dining table.

Michael and Kwini Reed, owners of Poppy & Seed in Anaheim. Kwini Reed said: “It got to the point where I thought, ‘If you just walk through the door, I’ll hire you.

(Hannah Khan)

The number of overtime hours in the kitchen is increasing. While Batchan, a longtime restaurateur who also runs Lock & Key in Koreatown, said he made little or no profit for the first months or even years of business, but the added costs associated with it. regarding staff shortages and the ongoing pandemic is unprecedented. .

Batchan is scheduling his team to work eight to nine o’clock shifts, but his kitchen staff often work 12 to 15 hours because the restaurant is understaffed.

“People are also expecting to be paid more, so your wage burden on the business increases dramatically,” he said. “You should hire more employees instead of overtime, but if you can’t find employees, what do you do? Raise prices?”

One way Batchan hopes to keep its employees happy is by charging a 20% service fee on all guest checks. All such costs will be passed on to the employee.

“You just hope the consumer has some understanding and when they see the price go up a little, it’s not the restaurant owner trying to outdo you,” he said.

Unable to pay more for employees, Kwini Reed said she is focusing on internal marketing to her employees. Some employees would walk in, work for an hour and then walk out, telling her that the restaurant down the street was willing to pay an extra 50 cents an hour.

“When you see In-N-Out Burger is hiring at $18 an hour to start, we can’t do that,” she said. “So we have to focus on retaining our employees and making them dependent not only on how much they make, but on how we make them feel.”

Thap Muoi regularly checks in with their staff to inquire about their physical and mental health. In the kitchen, they are patient with new employees and invest in training. If someone is short on money, Kwini Reed tells them to come see her and “we’ll figure something out.”

She said the check-in has also helped put employees in the right mindset when customers, who aren’t always on their best behavior, give negative feedback.

“Customers have anxiety and anger, just like all of us. They took it off the server because we were short on staff and the server was affected,” she said. “Customers don’t understand that we’re short on staff, and most don’t care. They want everything back to normal, but it doesn’t have to be the flip of a switch.”

Customers dine at Here's Looking at You restaurant in Los Angeles.
A January report from National Restaurant Assn. showed that, as of December, nearly 4/5 restaurants nationwide did not have enough staff to meet the needs of customers.

(Silvia Razgova / For the Times)

The sign up front at Uzumaki seems to be working, most of the time. And Wongaroon is counting on friends to work part-time at the restaurant until she can find a full-time employee.

“When people were waiting for a table outside, we walked past and apologized, and people said they saw the sign, so it was really helpful,” she said. “But not with everyone. Some people just don’t care.”

It seems the customer is not always right.

https://www.latimes.com/food/story/2022-04-22/la-fo-restaurant-staffing-shortage ‘Are you breathing? Hired.’ Why SoCal restaurants are still deeply short-staffed

Russell Falcon

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