Are Restaurants Sustainable, when Labor is in Question?



Tim Doolittle

Chef & Consultant

C.Y. Hospitality


Much attention and effort has been given to creating and maintaining sustainable restaurant menus and ingredients in the last 3 decades.  Thanks to early pioneers like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and more recently the likes of Rick Moonen everything from Minor’s Lettuce to Lionfish have been touted as “the” ingredient that define a sustainable kitchen.  These adjustments to buying and food supply systems have served the restaurants, communities, guests and the environment well.  Really, it all makes for good business practices with great benefits on the back end for all involved.  Thankfully the trend has been embraced and recognized by the public and press.

Today’s restaurants have benefited from the work of farmers, purveyors and others in a way that is immeasurable. With those systems and supply lines in place, the modern restauranteur has a new supply line issue.  Labor.  Anyone who has been an operator in the hospitality business over the last 15 or more years can attest to the decline not only of personnel, but their skill level and dedication to our craft. This is, I believe, a universal issue. It is not limited to a geographical area or sector of the industry. Chefs deal with it. Bar managers deal with it. Fast casual operators are not immune. Country Clubs, hotels, catering, the list goes on. These challenges are real and threaten to derail operators who are not savvy enough to adjust their outlook.  Depending who you ask, enrollment in culinary schools may or may not be on the decline. Certainly, with the abrupt closing of all Cordon Bleu affiliated programs in the United States an argument could be made that a decline is obvious and inevitable. Regardless of the statistics, the issue of good quality labor is just as critical as the overall labor shortage for restaurants nationwide. Not only is the labor shrinking, but the wages are rising as the push for $15/hr. minimum wage is sweeping the country. Even without a mandated wage increase, operators can expect to pay more (and possibly get less) when it comes to staffing.

So the question becomes;


-How sustainable is this model?

-How can restauranteurs pay higher wages without raising prices to unreasonable levels?

-How will the quality of food and service be affected by skill levels?

-Where is the next generation of operators going to come from?

-How do we create an environment to attract and retain staff?



So many questions, so many possible answers.  Solutions should likely involve a combination of several things.


-More competitive wage and benefit packages.

-More attractive schedule options.

-Showing appreciation for all levels of employee.

-Development of staff skills.

-Creative scheduling.

-Some level of automation or elimination of duties.

-An understanding public who is willing to pay more for dining.


As we move forward into this uncharted territory I look forward to studying how operators deal with these issues. It is possible that only the strongest will thrive, or survive. Hopefully the adjustments we make to our businesses will be as beneficial as our sustainable menus have become. I, for one, am not ready to let go of my dining habit, nor am I willing to pay double for it.

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