As the COVID pandemic eases, people have returned to restaurants in the nation’s capital, but not to work as cooks. And restaurant owners say that makes it harder for them to keep their doors open as tourists return to Washington’s monuments and museums.
About 59% of D.C. restaurateurs say they don’t have enough kitchen workers to keep up with existing customer demand, according to a recent survey of members by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. They ranked staffing among their top concerns, along with rising labor costs, inflation and gun violence.
“We’ve lost some important pipelines for training and nurturing the next generation of both full-time and part-time employees, and managers and operators often fill that gap with on-the-job training,” said Julie Sprosser, RAMW chief executive. director, told The Washington Times.
Restaurant owners say word of mouth about low pay, unfriendly managers and limited opportunities for growth has led many of the chefs who quit during the pandemic’s early closings to new careers as Uber drivers and TSA workers. And the industry’s reputation for 60- to 80-hour work weeks with no annual pay raises has reduced enrollment at the culinary schools that provide replacements.
Stratford University, which operated a culinary school in Falls Church, Virginia, closed in December and filed for bankruptcy last month. This follows the 2018 closure of L’Academie de Cuisine, a culinary school in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which also closed due to insufficient enrollment.
Ms. Sprosser said RAMW works to close that gap through local partnerships, training programs, a high school culinary and hospitality curriculum and community learning organizations.
“If we could wave a magic wand to solve this problem, we would, as would many across the country, but it will take time to build our workforce,” she said.
Capitol Hill-based Sunnyside Restaurant Group owns 13 Good Stuff Eatery, Santa Rosa Taqueria and We, The Pizza, primarily in Maryland, Virginia and the District. Sunnyside owner Micheline Mendelsohn said her Good Stuff Eatery now has five cooks working on the food production lines, down from the usual eight or nine.
To cope with the reality that 40% of customers now dine indoors, her diners have redesigned menus to reduce preparation time and installed computers to speed up service, she said.
“We’re guessing a lot of people left during COVID, found jobs outside of restaurants,” Ms. Mendelsohn said. “And there’s been a gray cloud hanging over the hospitality industry lately.”
Culinary schools still operating in the area report a sharp drop in the number of people training to work as cooks on kitchen lines.
“A lot of people don’t want to be a cook or a chef anymore because it’s hard and it’s not fun, it doesn’t pay well, and people will yell at you,” said Maria Kopsidos, Washington’s former personal chef. National pitcher. “There’s a lot of unfair practices going on in restaurants and people are getting tired of it.”
Ms. Kopsidos, who founded the Metropolitan Institute of Culinary Arts in 2014 in Arlington, Virginia, said her school’s graduation rate has dropped from 40 students a year before the pandemic to 20 a year today. The school’s 14-day program costs $15,500.
It also “became harder to keep people in one place” after placing her graduates in local jobs, Ms Kopsidos said. The former chef said she is working with local restaurant owners to ensure strict working hours are limited to 40 hours per week, provide full health insurance, offer sick pay and more flexible holiday pay.
“You have to accept that people have lives and can get sick or have to take care of their family,” Ms Copsidas said. “Salaries in the DK region have not grown since the 1990s. A chef makes $80,000 to $140,000 a year, but that’s about $16 an hour if they work 60 to 80 hours a week.”
Faris Gareb, co-owner of Wilson’s Hardware in Arlington, said the modern American restaurant is one deviation away from kitchen staff shortages.
And while it used to take a few days or a week to replace a cook before the pandemic, now, he says, it takes months. That’s why he makes every effort to retain his current chefs, he added.
“Before the pandemic, it was a much easier process because you could always get referrals from your staff,” Mr Gareb said. “This is not happening now. There aren’t many qualified people looking for this kind of job anymore, but there is still a lot of demand.”