D.c.'s Thriving Restaurant Scene Grapples With Worker Shortages (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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D.C.'s Thriving Restaurant Scene Grapples With Worker Shortages

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:10
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

00:00:35
We'll hear about kids coming of age in the juvenile justice system.

MS. CLAIRE GRANDISON

00:00:38
A lot of their youthful behavior has much more serious consequences once you're involved in the system.

SHEIR

00:00:44
And we'll hear from an older woman who's defying her age and inspiring others.

MS. SANDY GELLAR

00:00:48
It seemed in the beginning that I was coming to animate Kathleen. And it was Kathleen who was animating me.

SHEIR

00:00:59
Plus, a city in Maryland lowers the voting age to 16.

MR. TIM MALE

00:01:03
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?

SHEIR

00:01:18
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

00:01:56
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.

SHEIR

00:02:04
But, says Omar Hishmeh, general manager of Woodward Table, the 300-seat restaurant that opened near McPherson Square last fall…

HISHMEH

00:02:10
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.

SHEIR

00:02:16
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.

HISHMEH

00:02:30
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.

SHEIR

00:02:48
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…

HISHMEH

00:02:57
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.

SHEIR

00:03:03
…but once he finally found people, they weren't necessarily as seasoned as candidates in years past.

HISHMEH

00:03:08
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

00:03:29
So you guys looked at the menu? See anything you'd like to order?

SHEIR

00:03:32
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.

SHEIR

00:03:40
Yeah, what pop tarts do you have today?

SNYDER

00:03:41
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.

SHEIR

00:03:57
Again this is Snyder's very first job waiting tables.

SNYDER

00:04:00
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.

SHEIR

00:04:08
Were a lot of restaurants looking for staff?

SNYDER

00:04:10
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.

SHEIR

00:04:24
Snyder says he trained for just a few days before debuting as a server over Labor Day weekend.

SHEIR

00:04:29
So what was the training process like?

SNYDER

00:04:31
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.

SHEIR

00:04:40
Jenni Nguyen heads up training for Matchbox Food Group. And she says normally, the training process would indeed be more extensive.

MS. JENNI NGUYEN

00:04:46
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.

SHEIR

00:04:51
But the staffing process took so long at the new Ted's Bulletin, that they were still seeking people the day the place opened.

NGUYEN

00:04:58
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

00:05:09
If you're not fully staffed in your new restaurant, don't open up all the stations. Don't take reservations to the max.

SHEIR

00:05:16
Gus DiMillo co-owns Passion Food Hospitality, which operates a number of local restaurants, including D.C. Coast, District Commons and Acadiana.

DIMILLO

00:05:24
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

00:05:29
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.

SHEIR

00:05:38
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…

WIZENBERG

00:05:58
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.

SHEIR

00:06:10
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.

WIZENBERG

00:06:17
A lot of people overstaff.

SHEIR

00:06:19
In other words…

WIZENBERG

00:06:20
If you need five you hire ten.

SHEIR

00:06:22
And David Wizenberg, quite frankly, is not a fan of that strategy.

WIZENBERG

00:06:27
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.

SHEIR

00:06:44
Back at Woodward Table, general manager Omar Hishmeh says overstaffing was actually key to getting his restaurant open.

SHEIR

00:06:51
Were you fully staffed when you opened?

HISHMEH

00:06:52
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.

SHEIR

00:07:12
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.

HISHMEH

00:07:26
You have got to value the ones that you have and try and keep them, keep them with you.

SHEIR

00:07:30
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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