If you ask local restaurant owners about the most important person across all different eateries in the Upstate, from small hole-in-the-wall spots to white tablecloth, fine-dining establishments, many will tell you the same thing: Dishwashers.
“By far the dishwashers are the most important and most relevant position in the restaurant because their work touches every guest — every fork, spoon and knife; every plate or glass at the bar,” said Daniel Lovelace, chief marketing officer and director of guest experience at Rick Erwin Dining Group. “That dishwasher is going to have an impact on everyone’s experience, whether they stop to think about it or not.”
To be clear, this notion about the importance of dishwashers is not some sentimental tip of the hat to an often-overlooked position. Yes, the work of the dishwasher is vital to the smooth operation of any eatery, but it also represents the largest vulnerability for all restaurants in the Upstate.
Namely, what happens to a region’s culinary industry if there aren’t enough people to wash the dishes?
“Workforce issues continue to be the No. 1 area of concern for all operators,” said Carl Sobocinski, founder of Table 301 Restaurant Group, which operates local eateries such as Soby’s, The Lazy Goat, Nose Dive and Camp. “With foot traffic, tourism, business travel and so on, the problem in Greenville isn’t that the pie isn’t big enough for all of us. The problem is there’s not enough workers to go around.”
The restaurant industry is currently the second largest in the region behind manufacturing. It employs one in 12 people in the Upstate, according to the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. More and more chefs are flocking to the region from larger areas to open their own concepts — chefs like Drew Erickson at Camp, who previously worked at the acclaimed The French Laundry in California, or Joe Cash at Scoundrel, who worked at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark.
But just because acclaimed chefs are flocking here doesn’t mean dishwashers are so keen to relocate.
Multiple restaurant operators who spoke to Upstate Business Journal said the last summer saw the largest increase in the number of college and high school students who were hired to backfill positions like servers, food runners, hosts and dishwashers. But with students returning to the classrooms, that segment of the worker pool has largely evaporated, Sobocinski said.
That, coupled with the already strong demand for staff, has left potential workers with more options.
At places like Camilla Kitchen in downtown Greenville, a cafe that operates mostly for a lunch and breakfast crowd, more applicants are reaching out to find a job that operates during what chef Teryi Youngblood Musolf calls “normal-people hours.”
“It’s easier for us because we can allow people to live normal lives, especially if they have families and kids,” Musolf said. “When you’re working those crazy hours, getting home at 3 a.m., that’s tough on people.”
But even Musolf is now relying on apps like SnapShyft, shiftNOW and Upshift, which allow restaurants to quickly hire workers on a moment’s notice for last-minute positions.
That problem is compounded when one considers the sheer number of people who will be required to meet the demands of a steadily growing restaurant base, especially as more major developments highlight their culinary tenants.
At massive new developments like BridgeWay Station in Mauldin and the County Square project in downtown Greenville, dozens of new restaurants are expected to open in the next several years. That comes as dozens more independent restaurants are expected to open or have opened across Greenville County.
For Lovelace, who is at the helm of one of Greenville’s legacy restaurant groups, the numbers are concerning.
“You look at some of these multibillion-dollar developments coming, and they have restaurants that I know are going to require at least 80 staff people to function,” Lovelace said. “Where are they going to get those workers, other than taking them from other restaurants nearby? And then what happens to those places?”
A quick search through any job listing website reveals the scope of the challenge. Type in “dishwasher” on Indeed, Glassdoor, ZipRecuiter or other job listing platforms, and what you’ll find might as well be a list of every single restaurant in the area.
From Urban Wren to Olive Garden, Lewis Barbecue to the Grand Bohemian, Applebees to La Parrilla Mexican Restaurant, it seems all restaurants are actively seeking back-of-house dishwashers.
Then throw on top of that the need for servers, hosts and kitchen staff, and it tells a story of an impending crisis that restaurant owners have, for the most part, addressed by closing ranks and looking out for themselves.
“We’re just always looking for people,” said Dayna Lee, James Beard-nominated chef of Comal 864.
For restaurant groups such as Rick Erwin Dining Group, which operates a large pool of workers across its seven restaurants, there is some padding, but new arrivals might find the worker pool dryer than expected.
“I think they may be too optimistic (right now) about the employee base that’s available in the Upstate,” Lovelace said.