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

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Ted’s Bulletin on 14th Street NW is among the many restaurants – new and old – feeling the staffing crunch in D.C.
Joe in DC
Ted’s Bulletin on 14th Street NW is among the many restaurants – new and old – feeling the staffing crunch in D.C.

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 fast-forward to the present, and 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, in spring alone we saw roughly 50 new restaurants open their doors around town.

"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," says Omar Hishmeh, general manager of Woodward Table, the 300-seat restaurant that opened near McPherson Square last fall.

"But 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," he adds.

D.C. restaurants employed nearly 50,000 people last year. This year, they'll employ nearly 53,000 -- that's roughly 7 percent of the District's work force. But Hishmeh and his colleagues in the business are having an increasingly tough time filling those positions with experienced restaurant staff.

"Our sister restaurants are Bistro Bis and Vidalia, where I previously worked," Hishmeh says. "When I was at Bistro Bis, you'd put an ad in Craiglist for a waiter and 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 all-day job fairs ("Sun up to sun down, because some people already have a job and maybe they can't come in til 8 or 9 o'clock," he says), but once he finally found people, they weren't necessarily as seasoned as candidates in years past.

"To bring somebody on, to teach someone to be a good waiter or good bartender or good host or good busser or good food runner, it's really a hands-on process," he says, "and requires everyone from the management down to come together to really train someone properly. To do that with somebody who has no experience is pretty difficult, but it definitely can be done."

Colin Snyder is a brand new server at the new 14th Street outpost of Ted's Bulletin — the retro American eatery famous for its "adult" milkshakes and homemade pop tarts. This is Snyder's very first job waiting tables; he just graduated from the University of Delaware, and spent the start of the summer walking up and down 14th Street NW, to see which restaurants were hiring.

"A lot of restaurants were looking for experience," he says. "But Ted's Bulletin, owned by Matchbox Food Group, [has] 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. He says the training process was "a little bit different" than usual.

"They were kind of desperate for servers and every day was very busy," he explains. "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.

"It takes seven days," she says. "You don't just come in and get trained a day and then get to stay on."

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," Nguyen says. "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."

Gus DiMillo co-owns Passion Food Hospitality, which operates a number of local restaurants, including D.C. Coast, District Commons and Acadiana. He says if you're opening a restaurant and are short-staffed, think twice about when you make your big debut.

"If you're not fully staffed in your new restaurant, don't open up all the stations. Don't take reservations to the max," he says. "Pace your staff out so they can learn, and that they don't get clobbered."

Fellow Passion Food Hospitality co-owner David Wizenberg agrees. "Think about it," he says. "If a server is literally running, they're not supplying good service! Moreover, if the front [of house] isn't ready, chances are the back [of house] isn't ready."

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, he says, "then the servers you have [are] 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: overstaffing. And Wizenberg, quite frankly, is not a fan of that strategy.

"The interview process should be real, as opposed to just bringing in bodies," he says. "And you fund some overtime so people can work a little bit more. The best way for people to learn is to do it over and over and over again, and hopefully do it better."

Woodward Table general manager Omar Hishmeh says overstaffing was actually key to getting his restaurant open.

"You always want to have a few more than you know that you need because some are unfortunately not going to work out," he says.

After he hired his staff, he says "it was kind of a game of figuring out who wanted to 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 to value the ones that you have and try and keep them, keep them with you," he says.

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.

[Music: "Help Wanted" by Jesse Anderson from Rare Sou]

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