John Kurzen has spent more than a decade working in some of the best restaurants in the South, honing his expertise as a butcher and chef who knows how to use every part of the animal.
But these days, you won’t find Kurzen in the kitchen.
Instead, you’ll find him cleaning and fixing up backyard pools.
“At first, it seemed so crazy to jump a career that I went to school for and spent years working on and then start working at a pool company, of all things,” Kurzen said.
The great resignation
But Kurzen is not alone. All over the country, veterans of the food service industry are hanging up their knives and leaving the kitchen.
In November alone, 920,000 restaurant workers voluntarily quit their jobs, amounting to nearly 7% of the industry, far more than in any other sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To put that in perspective, about 4.3 million workers quit their jobs that month, which means about 1 out of every 5 workers who quit in November were restaurant workers.
“In the 41 years I’ve been in the restaurant industry, I have certainly seen labor markets that are tougher than others,” said Rick Erwin, founder of Rick Erwin’s Dining Group, which runs six restaurants in the Upstate. “But what our entire industry is going through right now is just simply something we’ve never seen before.”
The so-called “great resignation” has left restaurant operators scrambling. Nearly all have increased wages to entice workers. Some restaurants, like Bar Margaret in the Village of West Greenville, have cut hours. Others have cut menus to operate more efficiently with a smaller team. Other eateries, like Taco La Barra on Woodruff Road, have closed their doors for good, citing staffing shortages as the main reason.
“We’ve gone as far as we can go,” Rehan Mir, owner of Taco La Barra, said on social media when announcing the closure in February. “It’s always been a tough industry,” he told the Upstate Business Journal, “but this is the first time I’ve seen anything this bad.”
Not only are the staffing challenges affecting existing restaurants — they’re making it harder to open new ones.
“It certainly is always one of the toughest challenges in this industry, and it’s only exacerbated by COVID and the after-effect of that,” said Molly Cashman, co-owner of Blue Moon Specialty Foods, which is planning to open a second location in downtown Spartanburg this year. “So if anyone’s interested in a job, let us know.”
Before the pandemic, Kurzen’s life was spent in the hard-working world of fine-dining, spending long hours on his feet, preparing high-level dishes at a breakneck pace. He was part of the original team that opened Husk in Charleston, helmed by chef Sean Brock, a time which he still calls “some of the best years of my life.”
He later moved to Greenville to serve as sous chef and butcher at Husk Greenville, where he ran the charcuterie program.
But when the pandemic struck, Husk closed its doors, and Kurzen found himself suddenly unmoored from the pirate ship life of the kitchen. On a whim, he started helping a friend of his build his backyard pool, just to kill time.
“In my head, I always figured I’d be going back to the restaurant,” he said. “But my wife started telling me, ‘You have color in your face now. You don’t look like a ghost. You’re smiling more. You’re healthier.’”
He also was able to spend more time with his children, his seven-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. Small events he would’ve missed as a chef — his son’s flag football practice, for example — he could now attend. He wasn’t staying late in the kitchen because a line cook or a dishwasher had called off. His knees and feet didn’t ache. He slept better.
“I don’t want to come across as bashing restaurants, because I love restaurants so much,” Kurzen said. “But my lifestyle revolved around a job where the environment was long hours, long days, staying out late, and then tomorrow you’re going to do it again, and then again.”
By the time Husk Greenville announced its plans to reopen as Husk Barbecue in late 2020, Kurzen was working full time at Palmetto Pools. He was offered a job back in the Husk kitchen, but after praying on the decision with his wife, he decided not to return.
“I feel like this is where God wants me now,” he said. “The biggest question people always ask is, ‘Would you ever go back to restaurants?’ And the honest answer is that I really don’t think so.”
Like millions of other restaurants workers, Kurzen viewed the pandemic as a moment to pause and reassess, to step out of the heat of the kitchen and see what other opportunities were out there.
“COVID made me step back and say, “There’s something better than just grinding out work,’” he said. “Before, my identity was work. Now, my identity is not in the pool company. My identity is with my family, with God, and I happen to work to make a paycheck to provide for my family, and that’s the transition that has changed my life.”