Restaurants feel the labor pains of the growing food scene

photography by Caroline Herring

Almost every week, it seems Greenville makes a national top 10 list of one variety or another — and the focus is often on the growing restaurant scene. But the increasing number of eateries has exacerbated an already prevalent problem within the local restaurant industry.

“There are a thousand restaurant jobs in Greenville and only 900 people to fill them,” says Chad Gangwer, co-owner of Southern Culture and Bar and its newly opened neighbor, LTO Burger Bar.

Those aren’t the exact figures, obviously. Instead they offer a figurative analysis of the issue: there are more restaurant positions than there are staff to fill them. And if a restaurant can’t find staff, it can’t provide the service.

“Everyone feels it, down to the customers,” says Henry’s Smokehouse owner Tiger O’Rourke, who needs 45 employees to operate his restaurants at optimum level but is currently about 10 short.

The reason for that shortage, however, isn’t quite as simple as noting the supply and demand deficit.

A survey of several local veteran restaurateurs offers a number of other explanations. Some say there are problems with the younger generation of workers, while others say there’s a general negative attitude towards service industry jobs.

Steve Seitz, Table 301 Restaurant’s chief operating officer (CK) and vice president of operations, worked for 20 years in Charlotte’s restaurant community before moving to Greenville two and a half years ago to help lead the local group. Today, Table 301 owns eight restaurants, including Soby’s and Jianna, a food truck, and a catering business and employs around 500 people.

Seitz said that today’s Greenville reminds him of Charlotte in the 1990s when independent restaurants starting popping up with increasing frequency. He sees the same type of lag here, but believes it will eventually catch up as Greenville becomes more and more recognized for its scene.

“It’s becoming popular with culinarians and service staff,” Seitz says, adding that career service industry members are starting to target Greenville as a destination.

Seitz says this last spring was the toughest season yet since he joined Table 301.

During the winter season, which is traditionally slow for restaurants, there isn’t enough work for a more robust staff, so eateries run bare-bone operations. When the local scene starts to pick in spring, restaurants start hiring, all at the same time. That’s especially challenging for restaurants when they’re trying to staff up to a complete kitchen and a front of the house of 100 servers, hostesses, and bartenders.

Seitz says staffing Jianna this spring posed a challenge for the Table 301 restaurant group, as Jianna pulled staff from other group restaurants to fill the gaps. “We cannibalized ourselves,” he said.

Chai Eang, owner of Basil Thai, knows all too well the challenge of staffing a new restaurant in this nascent foodie town. When Basil Thai opened in May, Eang had hired only one staff member from Greenville. The rest were current employees at his other locations in Columbia and Charlotte whom he had to put up in a local hotel so they didn’t have to drive back and forth.

“It’s been tough, but it’s getting better,” he said. One indication that’s the case: Basil recently added daily lunch service.

Barley’s Taproom and the Trappe Door owner Josh Beeby says he’s noticed the pool of available applicants dwindling in size and quality over the last few years. This year was especially difficult, he said.

“We’re constantly a man down,” Beeby said.

For LTO Burger Bar’s Gangwer, just a few years ago he could be more selective in his hiring, but that’s not the case these days.

“Five to six years ago you could pick and choose,” Gangwer said. “Now I just have to buy in bulk.”

O’Rourke expresses a similar sentiment. Previously, he wouldn’t consider an applicant whose résumé showed he changed jobs every six months. Today, that’s nearly every applicant. He has little choice but to risk it.

“There’s a lot of jumping around of those 25 and under,” he said.

Beeby used to put help wanted ads on Craigslist, but says the quality of applicants was so poor that it wasn’t worth the time. Some of those hires walked out mid-shift or would bail after only a few weeks.

“This generation in general, they’re entitled,” he says. “They don’t want to work.”

If one is to believe the reports, Millennials are more likely to take a job in which they’ll feel personally fulfilled. In Europe, wait staff jobs are often salaried, but in America that’s generally not the case. As result, service industry jobs carry something of a social stigma in the U.S. they don’t in Europe.

When you add in the long hours and an inconsistent tips-based income —deterrents for many — it’s not surprising a restaurant career doesn’t have the appeal other occupations do.

Kitchen staff tends to have more longevity in the business, while serving jobs are often seen as a stepping stone or means to an end for college students, says Seitz, who spends much of his time managing and reducing turnover. Interestingly, Soby’s does have a few servers who’ve been on staff since the beginning, 1997.

“Folks don’t aspire to be in the industry,” he says. “But it’s an excellent opportunity for a young adult to get in a management position.”

But those who aren’t passionate about the job are less likely to push through when the hours and work get tough. Many move on to another restaurant, thinking it will be better there. It’s generally not.

“Let me tell you, the grass is not greener,” Beeby says. “Several people who’ve left came back.”

But Beeby doesn’t ignore the role he plays in staff retention. He knows kitchen work, especially, is difficult, which is the main reason Trappe Door no longer serves lunch. His staff was “worked to the bone” from prepping for dinner while serving lunch. He recognized their quality of life was suffering.

“I’ve made an effort to put my employees as No. 1,” he says. “If you treat them well, they’ll treat the customers well.”

Partnering with local culinary schools, such as the Culinary Arts Institute at Greenville Tech, Bob Jones University’s culinary arts program, Project Host, Johnson and Wales in Charlotte, and Virginia College in Charleston does help provide kitchen staff for many local restaurants, but a partnership is no guarantee of success or longevity.

Seitz says a main source of new and quality staff members for Table 301 is through referrals from current employees. And he’s committed to retaining them through fair treatment and positive work environment because he believes a job in the restaurant industry should be one of the most desired careers.

“Everybody should work in a restaurant,” Seitz says. “The life skills and interpersonal challenges are unmatched anywhere else.”



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