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The Top Chef Phenomenon Is Taking Its Toll

Michael SansonAccording to the National Restaurant Association, rising food costs had the greatest effect on your company last year. This year, however, many of you say the availability of labor and related immigration laws will be your top worry. And when it comes to labor, a dwindling supply of experienced line cooks is already taking its toll on restaurants.

The problem emanates from what some are calling The Top Chef phenomenon. I touched on it last month in my editorial. The media, including television shows such as Bravo’s Top Chef and the Food Network’s Iron Chef, have romanticized the profession of cooking. A legion of young kids enter culinary schools every year (to the tune of up to $60,000), and then discover when they graduate that the “real” job of cooking is long, hard work for a modest wage. It sinks in quickly that the probability of becoming the next Bobby Flay or Wolfgang Puck is rather slim.

As a result, many restaurants are having a difficult time finding line cooks who are willing to pay their dues. However, this is not just an issue of vanity or unrealistic expectations. That was made clear recently in The San Francisco Chronicle, which detailed how difficult it is for a young, hard-working cook to survive in a big city on a wage of $10-$15 an hour. After the rent is paid, there is little money left over for anything else.

San Francisco restaurant operators are also struggling to keep their heads above water because of minimum wage laws, sick leave requirements and health insurance mandates. The San Francisco wage law requires owners to pay servers a minimum wage of $9.14 an hour, and that’s on top of tips. For the hours servers work, they’re paid very well. But line cooks are essentially frozen at the per-hour wage they earn because they don’t receive tips. Operators can’t afford to give cooks a raise because their payroll is getting rocked by minimum wage mandates. As you might imagine, there’s growing friction between front- and back-of-the-house workers.

Things may only get worse in San Francisco. A health insurance law, which was due to take effect Jan. 1, would require restaurants with 20 or more employees to provide health insurance. The law has not taken effect as of this writing because the city restaurant association has filed a lawsuit to block it.

In the past, some restaurant owners voluntarily paid the health insurance of cooks and other full-time workers as an incentive for them to stay. But the new law would require them to pay health insurance for even part-time workers, which would cut further into razor-thin margins.

Even if San Francisco workers receive mandated health insurance, attracting and keeping line cooks will not be easy in the year ahead. And that goes for lots of cities around the country. It will take some imagination to keep kitchens humming.

Some San Francisco operators are getting creative, such as offering cooks the opportunity to work one or two shifts a week as runners so they can make tips those nights. If any of you have any ideas about how to ease this labor issue, particularly with line cooks, I’d love to hear from you.

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