Help Wanted: S.F. Restaurants Using New Incentives to Attract Kitchen Talent

The tech industry may lure highly qualified workers with benefits like free meals, transportation to and from work, on-site massages, and in-office rock-climbing walls, but the restaurant industry is catching up. San Francisco's overabundance of exceptional eateries and an undersupply of dedicated workers has left many places looking for new ways to lure cooks into the kitchen.

While the hours are still long, the work back-breaking, and the pay (in most cases) sobering, some of the more forward-thinking restaurants have started to offer their employees novel perks like commuter credits, educational opportunities, and full health coverage — all in an effort to attract decent kitchen talent.

Restaurant owners and chefs have been grumbling about this so-called “labor crisis” since the city's restaurant boom took off a few years ago. Apart from the obvious reasons, like a higher cost of living and a cook's less-than-livable average annual salary, chefs say that San Francisco's dwindling supply of lower-level kitchen talent is because there are now other, less-conventional ways to get into the industry.

Simply put: Fewer people want to start at the bottom, so they're getting into the business with a food truck or pop-up and bypassing the restaurant hierarchy.

With more restaurants per capita here than any other city in the U.S. — and good ones, at that — it's gotten to the point where inexperienced cooks with a decent work ethic and passion for the industry can find a job nearly anywhere. You could even say they hold the upper hand.

“You look at a résumé differently now than you did a couple of years ago,” says Ryan Pollnow, chef de cuisine at the Ne Timeas group (which includes Flour + Water, Central Kitchen, and Salumeria). “Before, a résumé with a little spelling or grammatical mistake would get passed over — now, not so much. We also used to look for at least three years of experience in a kitchen. Now, we just want people who are passionate and want to commit to something.”

As the number of new openings continue to multiply, employers aware of the need to keep a competitive edge are getting creative and, in some cases, paying up.

Seven-month-old Russian Hill restaurant Stones Throw is among those eateries going to impressive lengths to attract, and hopefully retain, new cooks.

Along with monthly volunteer trips to the SF-Marin Food Bank, the restaurant gives its staff team-building activities and educational excursions to Wine Country, breweries, and farms.

“We find that people want to learn as much as they can about their jobs, so for us, offering educational opportunities is the best thing we can do,” says partner and general manager Ryan Cole, who admits he stole a few employee-retention ideas from his days as regional director of operations at Michael Mina.

Recent Stones Throw staff activities have included pruning vines at Medlock Ames in Sonoma and visiting the restaurant's fruit supplier K & J Orchards. Cole says such trips offer an escape for the staff and an opportunity to get better acquainted with the teams they're working with in the kitchen.

Among its more thoughtful incentives, Stones Throw also recently started offering its staff $25 a month in Uber credits to use in the inevitable event that an employee is running late for work or needs a quick lift home after a long shift. Eventually, the restaurant hopes to increase the transportation stipend to $50 a month, no restrictions applied.

Employees consider the commuter cash a “pretty sweet deal,” says Cole, adding that they preferred it over on-the-house gym memberships he also was considering as a benefit.

Stones Throw's other big draw is the average $14-$15 an hour it offers to dedicated cooks, way above the minimum wage that most kitchen staff under the executive and sous chefs can hope to get. Cole says he would even pay more to someone who promised they were committed to stay. “It would cost us less in the long run,” he says.

While its rate is certainly higher than the industry average, Cole says it's on par with cooks at higher-end restaurants, some of whom are raking in $60,000 annually with overtime and holiday pay. That's a lot of dough for a prep or line cook, considering the talent required and restaurants' slim profit margins.

For Pollnow, who oversees the menus at Flour + Water, Central Kitchen, and Salumeria, increasing pay isn't an option. So holding on to a good staff is all about creating friendly environments that people want to work in and come back to.

“We realize we spend the majority of our lives with these people, so the old-school mentality of 'who can bark the loudest has the most power' just doesn't fly,” Pollnow says.

Like so many other restaurants, Central Kitchen has seen a turnover in its staff this year and is currently seeking a new line cook. Pollnow says that if it can find the right fit, the restaurant will offer growth within the company by promoting a loyal, hardworking cook to a higher-level position at one of its other eateries. This strategy keeps talented employees in the family.

The same goes for Mid-Market's AQ, part of the Mercer Restaurant Group, where half the opening staff has either remained on board since day one or gone on to work in better roles for another of the company's restaurants, including TBD and Melange Market.

Owner Matthew Semmelhack says his group also incentivizes employees to stick around with full health care benefits that include dental and vision coverage — something that's almost unheard-of in the industry.

The group also has a program to financially support employees seeking higher education in hospitality by sharing the cost of wine classes and courses in management or finance. All such benefits have “definitely paid off with retention and gracious, proud employees that are starting to focus their careers,” says Semmelhack.

While these perks seem to be working for these places, others are still catching on.

Scott Youkilis, chef-owner of Maverick and Hog & Rocks in the Mission, says that he's still searching for the secret sauce to retain loyal employees. Going forward, he says he's simply considering adapting to the cook-strapped industry by making less complicated menus or building out smaller restaurants that require fewer staff to maintain.

“It's really shaping the way we do things,” he says. “We now have to reconsider what we want to do when opening a new concept.”

Or, he adds, “we might just steal some of those ideas from the other restaurants.”

Just as long as he doesn't steal their cooks, that should be fine.

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