MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I’m Rebecca Sheir and according to the U.S. Census, D.C. is getting younger and younger, with people 29 and under making up more than 42 percent of the population. And if you live in certain neighborhoods, like Capitol Hill or Logan's Circle, that percentage can feel even higher. So with a nod to all those young folks out there, we're calling today's show "Coming of Age."
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We'll hear about kids coming of age in the juvenile justice system.
MS. CLAIRE GRANDISON
A lot of their youthful behavior has much more serious consequences once you're involved in the system.
And we'll hear from an older woman who's defying her age and inspiring others.
MS. SANDY GELLAR
It seemed in the beginning that I was coming to animate Kathleen. And it was Kathleen who was animating me.
Plus, a city in Maryland lowers the voting age to 16.
MR. TIM MALE
Learning that the voting age was lower than 18 in other countries and other places was complete news to me. And so I was open to the idea that -- well, how is it working?
So if we're talking about Coming of Age, something that's definitely been coming of age these past few years is D.C.'s restaurant industry. Longtime Washingtonians may remember that once upon a time, you could find some French restaurants in the city, some Italian, maybe some Chinese. Then you had steakhouses like Blackey's, and cafeterias like Sholl's. But these days, well, according to the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington or RAMW, in 2011 the District boasted more than 2,100 eateries, of all culinary stripes. That was nearly a 5 percent increase from 2010. And if you look at this year, well, this spring alone, roughly 50 new restaurants open their doors around town.
MR. OMAR HISHMEH
There's been a huge influx of restaurants from established chefs in D.C., as well as an influx of chefs from other parts of the country and other parts of the world who are opening restaurants.
But, says Omar Hishmeh, general manager of Woodward Table, the 300-seat restaurant that opened near McPherson Square last fall…
You know, if you have a finite amount of labor in D.C., it makes it a little bit difficult to kind of spread it out, thin as it is.
See, D.C. restaurants employed nearly 50,000 people last year. This year, they'll employ nearly 53,000. That's like 7 percent of the District's work force. But Hishmeh and his colleagues in the biz are having a heck of a time filling those positions with experienced restaurant staff.
Our sister restaurants are Bistro Bis and Vidalia, where I previously worked. And when I was at Bistro Bis, you know, you'd put an ad in Craigslist for a waiter and, you know, within a few hours you'd have 60, 70 responses. It's not the same now. Trying to find one or two good waiters or good bartenders is very, very difficult.
Woodward Table hit the scene last November, but it took three whole months before that to fill all 130 staff positions. Not only did Hishmeh have to hold these all-day job fairs…
Sun up to sun down, because some people already have a job and maybe they can't come in until 8:00 or 9:00 o'clock.
…but once he finally found people, they weren't necessarily as seasoned as candidates in years past.
To bring somebody on and to teach someone to be a good waiter or a good bartender or a good host or a good busser or a good food runner, you know, it's really a hands-on process. And it really requires everyone from the management down to come together to really train somebody properly. To do that with somebody who has no experience is pretty difficult, but it definitely can be done.
MR. COLIN SNYDER
So you guys looked at the menu? See anything you'd like to order?
Colin Snyder is a first-time server at the new 14th Street outpost of Ted's Bulletin — that's the retro American eatery famous for its homemade pop tarts.
Yeah, what pop tarts do you have today?
So we have blueberry cheesecake; strawberry; brown sugar cinnamon; toasted coconut, which is not on the menu; and we also have peanut butter bacon; and chocolate salted caramel. It's before noon, so I'd recommend strawberry or blueberry cheesecake. You don't want to go too heavy.
Again this is Snyder's very first job waiting tables.
I just graduated from the University of Delaware. And I walked up and down 14th Street with all the new restaurants here, seeing who was hiring.
Were a lot of restaurants looking for staff?
They were. A lot of restaurants were looking for experience, but Ted's Bulletin, as owned by Matchbox Food Group -- I think they have a pretty solid training program in place. And so I think they don't mind taking someone who's never done it before and kind of turning them around.
Snyder says he trained for just a few days before debuting as a server over Labor Day weekend.
So what was the training process like?
It was a little bit different because they were kind of desperate for servers and every day was very busy. So I might have gotten the shortened version, the short but very intense version.
Jenni Nguyen heads up training for Matchbox Food Group. And she says normally, the training process would indeed be more extensive.
MS. JENNI NGUYEN
The training program, it takes seven days. You know, you don't just come in and get trained a day and then get to stay.
But the staffing process took so long at the new Ted's Bulletin, that they were still seeking people the day the place opened.
There's something we look for, which is called PMA, Positive Mental Attitude. And that was a little bit hard to find. And so it was a little bit more drawn-out than we would have liked it to be.
MR. GUS DIMILLO
If you're not fully staffed in your new restaurant, don't open up all the stations. Don't take reservations to the max.
Gus DiMillo co-owns Passion Food Hospitality, which operates a number of local restaurants, including D.C. Coast, District Commons and Acadiana.
Pace your staff out so that they can learn, and that they don't get, you know, just clobbered, you know, so…
MR. DAVID WIZENBERG
Well, I mean, think about it, if a server is literally running, they're not supplying good service. Moreover, if the front isn't ready, chances are the back's not ready.
David Wizenberg is another co-founder of Passion Food Hospitality. And he's referring to the front of house and back of house, you know, the area where diners sit and the area where cooks and other support staff work. Wizenberg says it's crucial that everyone in both areas be fully prepared when a restaurant opens. But that doesn't mean you should keep delaying your opening. Because if you do…
The servers you have, they're not able to make income, and training really falls off. It throws a tremendous amount of adrenaline to your crew to get open. You can't just keep practicing. You have to throw the windows open.
So, in a way, it's kind of a Catch 22. That's why many restaurateurs try to get around it by pulling a classic move.
A lot of people overstaff.
In other words…
If you need five you hire ten.
And David Wizenberg, quite frankly, is not a fan of that strategy.
The interview process should be real, as opposed to just bringing in bodies. And you fund some overtime so people can work a little bit more. And the best way for people to learn is to do it over and over and over again and hopefully do it better.
Back at Woodward Table, general manager Omar Hishmeh says overstaffing was actually key to getting his restaurant open.
Were you fully staffed when you opened?
Yes, we were. You always want to kind of have a few more than you know that you need because some are unfortunately not going to work out. And then after that it was kind of a game of figuring out who wanted to just kind of see eye to eye with us, as far as the concept of the restaurant, and then there were some, obviously, that didn't work out. And that's part of the business when you open a restaurant.
But regardless of how many waiters, bartenders, hosts, bussers, food-runners, etcetera that you hire at the get-go, one of the most important parts of the business Hishmeh says is treating them well, with understanding, support and respect.
You have got to value the ones that you have and try and keep them, keep them with you.
And so far, he says, that's paying off. Many of his original staff members are still with the restaurant today. He still has his share of staffing crises, and of course, he wishes that weren't the case. But in a burgeoning food town like Washington, that's becoming an increasingly tall order.
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