Early in the morning I have time to myself to consider my day ahead. Caffeine is coursing through my veins, and my thinking is as clear as the country morning is quiet. It gives me time to ponder; "What am I serving this week? Do my students have all the tools they will need to be successful?" And since part of my class is taught in a food truck, I always have to think about the weather. This week, there is a heat warning coming for my region and the PNW doesn't do well with extreme weather of any kind.
I think of days past, when kitchens consistently climbed above 100F. I remember white buckets filled with ice and either aqua fresca or Gatorade being emptied by dehydrated cooks, then filled as the kitchen temp climbed to about 120F, sweat dripping from every pore, and sometimes right into the food. For some reason, these memories always bring a smile to my face, as if working in hellish conditions is a badge of fucking honor and should be thought of fondly.
I think, "good, it will give my students a real taste of the industry, toughen them up." They need to know what they signed up for. I did it, countless Chefs before me did it, they should have to do it too.
But that kind of thinking is part of the reason that the hospitality industry is in the middle of dealing with a most dire labor shortage.
We used to think it was ok to pay waitstaff less than minimum wage. $2.01 an hour is fine, we thought, they'll make it up in tips. Who cares how they will pay their taxes, that sounds like a them problem, not an us problem.
We never gave much thought to health insurance or any other employee benefits: it was prohibitively expensive, no other restaurants did it, and therefor, there was no industry pressure to provide it. Yes, some of the staff were walking sick into work, and should have never touched another person's food, let alone had to wait on them. But they had to work, they needed the money, they (like so many of us), were living paycheck to paycheck.
We didn't care. We had to cover their shift if they had called off sick, or just gone without for one night. They knew that if they didn't work, they didn't get paid, simple math, really. They needed that money.
We never gave it any thought to how they felt calling in sick. Did we know that the guilt was sometimes more crippling than the sickness itself? That the sense of commitment to the team, not to mention the loss of pay, was most of the time more than enough to get that employee out the door and into work. No, we didn't even think about it.
We, as cooks and waitstaff, put up with all of that and more, never giving it a second thought.
It wasn't right when there was no air conditioning and we were in the midst of the worst heat wave in decades. The kitchen was located on the ninth floor of a turn-of-the-century building where you dripped sweat from your eyelids on even mildly hot days.
It wasn't right when your exhaust hood went down, and your cook, suffering from the heat, lost their dinner in the alley behind the kitchen. We kept cooking anyway because that was what was expected, that's the way it had always been. It was the unwritten code of every kitchen, but it sure as shit did not make it right.
None of this shit is right.
This is where we can start to make a difference, and this is when we can make change. It starts with one act from each of us. One person has to say, just because it is, does not mean it's right, and then, slowly, we will change.
One of the biggest challenges the hospitality industry is facing post Covid is lack of staff. Who wants to work for minimum wage, for an ungrateful boss, in adverse conditions, to an overly demanding clientele? No one. Can you blame them for not wanting to come back?
The reason they may have stayed with you pre-Covid may be as simple as apathy. They might have thought, "the job was good enough, sure, the pay, hours and the working conditions suck, but the people I work with are great and in the restaurant business, there is never a dull moment. And it beats looking for a job." Sometimes it just comes down to the devil you know, versus the one you don't.
Due in great part to the lockdown, their world got turned upside down, they had to look for a different and less risky job and now they're not coming back. And can you blame them?
Through no fault of your own you lost your team.
Now is the time for change.
No one should tolerate less than a living wage.
No one should tolerate hostile working conditions, that includes the heat.
No one should have to put their wallet above their well being.
We must become responsible employers, take care of the people who take care of us. That's right, change needs to start with each one of us.
Make sure all staff members know that they are appreciated. Be the boss you wish you had coming up in the industry. Think outside the box to ensure your staff gets what they need. Raise your prices, add a service charge, and explain to your clientele where the money goes. Make sure your staff's well being is handled by you, the owner, not left up to the employee. Be a mentor to your employees who have a drive to be/learn/do more.
Don't just give your employees money and expect them to be responsible and spend it on insurance or things that are boring. I have news for you, most of your employees aren't that responsible. They are young and you were young too, once. They will spend it on wine, women, or men, and song. I know that's what I did. Hand me a big wad of cash, and I was going out to dinner, most likely somewhere fancy.
Breed respect and role model loyalty. Creating a dynamic of integrity in your place must start with you.
Until next week,