Opinion: Charlotte chef gets candid about restaurant industry shakeup, labor shortage

In the restaurant industry, I’ve heard the term “opportunity” thrown out there a lot recently. “People should be thankful for the opportunity to work.”

“The experience is an opportunity that’s worth more than the money.”

“Opportunities are equity.”

But what is opportunity, really?

Is it working to feed 400 diners on Christmas Eve while your kids are home staring at a tree with far too few gifts under it, only to get a $50 “bonus” slipped to you, with a “thanks for everything” and a handshake?

Is it the thrill of cooking in a testosterone-filled kitchen where homophobic, misogynistic and racist “jokes” are normalized?

‘Green-tinted glasses’

People talk about the current state of the hospitality industry with green-tinted glasses. The prevailing thought from most in positions of power, and those on the periphery, is that the hiring crisis of 2021 is a result of an inflated government assistance program for the former employees of restaurants across our nation.

Fifteen dollars.

The number that is thrown out as the answer to everyone’s problems. A number that equates to about $25,000 annual take home pay based on a 40-hour work week.

This is what many would have you believe is the silver bullet of hospitality.

When you factor in a historically toxic working environment, powered by energy drinks, leftovers, sexual harassment and substance abuse, why is it surprising that people aren’t beating the doors down to get back to work there?

Rob Clement is a chef and owner of the Jewish pop-up deli Meshugganah in Charlotte.
Rob Clement is a chef and owner of the Jewish pop-up deli Meshugganah in Charlotte.

The most common thought is that we are experiencing a shallow labor pool where the least qualified employees are looking for more money than their perceived value.

In reality, the labor pool is as deep as it has ever been; with would-be employees choosing not to dive head first into shark infested waters.

A year of change

While many entry-level positions remain available, the most staggering result of a year of government mandated restrictions on restaurants is the defections of management-level employees from the industry.

On nearly a daily basis, executive chefs, sous chefs and front of house management are handing in their keys in exchange for 9-to-5 employment and a better quality of life.

At the end of the day, as hourly employees realize they deserve more, staffing shortages place the burden heavily on salaried employees who receive no extra compensation for going above and beyond.

Beyond that, those whose creativity have driven business have realized the power and appeal of their skill sets. In an age of social media, there is public compassion for small businesses, and an upstart cook can go from broiling $80 steaks for the 1 percenters to making deli sandwiches for the masses and be celebrated for it.

Meshugganah, a pop-up started by Rob Clement in September, is known for its pastrami sandwiches.
Meshugganah, a pop-up started by Rob Clement in September, is known for its pastrami sandwiches.

All over America, cooks have filled culinary culture voids in their respective communities, getting back to why they love this business in the first place.

Just over a year ago, restaurant employees were encouraged and even assisted in accessing unemployment benefits as COVID-19 put life as we knew it on hold. Now, those same employees are being shamed for putting themselves ahead of an industry that turned its back on them while gaining access to Paycheck Protection Program loans and the Restaurant Relief Fund.

Over that same time, an incredible thing happened.

The people who had been living in a world where the gossip of the restaurant took precedence over the realities of society were exposed to so many things for, perhaps, the first time.

Instead of seeing tickets pile up on the spike, we watched body bags being stacked outside of hospitals in New York City. All the while, instead of having family meals at the restaurant, we had meals with our families.

We watched George Floyd have his life taken for close to 10 minutes straight, a time in which normally dozens of plates would leave the pass to hungry guests.

World-renowned chefs and restaurateurs flocked to the White House to #SaveRestaurants while the employees of those restaurants fled to the unemployment line, predominantly uninsured and without credit or savings.

We saw the worst in the world at large, while reconnecting to the best parts of our individual lives.

So what is opportunity, really?

I know for me, it was the ability to see all that was wrong with the life I lived, where I spent more time reading tickets than bedtime stories to my two young kids.

It’s having been the right gender, race and sexual orientation to go from slicing meat in the Publix Deli to owning my own deli in less than five years.

Very few people in this industry have been as fortunate as myself. It’s because of this, I choose to navigate these waters of change. Knowing the inherent advantages of being a white male chef, married to a beautiful wife and having two beautiful children, I feel compelled, if not obligated, to do more than my predecessors with this opportunity.

Local chefs unite to help increase restaurant worker pay by calling out unfair wages

All the accolades

We love to celebrate the victories of restaurants and chefs.

As society, we create awards, rankings and entire industries that exist to prop up individuals like myself for simply doing what they love: the craft, art and honesty of providing genuine hospitality to perfect strangers.

In return, the expectation is flawless execution and impeccable service. We demand greatness on a plate or in a glass, and allow for those washing the dishes to live in fear of having enough gas to get to work or taking a day off when they are sick.

While everyone can cook, not everyone can “restaurant,” and nobody can do it alone.

So where do we go from here? How can we fix a system that is set up for restaurants to fail before they even open?

Pre-COVID, if a chef, sommelier, bartender or general manager felt ready to take the leap and open their own concept, the path was very narrow.

Writing a business plan, pitching investors, personally guaranteeing loans and putting everything on the line for a chance to owe people money was considered the “opportunity of a lifetime.”

Yet today, for maybe the first time in modern history, as over 100,000 restaurants have shuttered nationwide and a booming commercial real estate market hit a standstill, the power of creativity has become much more valuable.

While millionaire landowners treated restaurants as sharecroppers for decades, their unwillingness to help their tenants in a time of need has left their proverbial fields bare with dusty tables and empty walk-ins.

Slowly but surely, the same property owners who made one-sided deals as common as a tomato salad in summertime are coming closer to the middle. Bolstered tenant improvement packages, crowdfunding and unique investment platforms that actively decline to take advantage of the business owner have started to level the playing field.

These are the Charlotte restaurants paying $15/hour or more.

The industry is not dead, just changing

As so many places closed, a new wave of creative concepts with innovative business models have risen out of the ashes like a phoenix, giving hope that our beloved industry is not dead, or even on life support. Our peers are starting cookie companies in their home kitchens, fried chicken concepts in vacant restaurant spaces and sandwich pop-ups at breweries.

While so many have left our industry for dead, it lives on, motivated by the same vigor that got

us through so many busy services through the years. Adapting to a new world, where we, the people who make dining out a part of Americana, are setting a new table. One where everyone has a seat, as long as they keep the whole family fed.

There is no singular fix, no vaccine for this virus. There is no magic bullet or bailout that will be big enough. No single chef can change the industry, and no single restaurant can change the narrative.

The only thing any one of us can do is strive to be better and do better, day in and day out. We must put people over profits, and remember why we do what we do and who we truly do it for.

They say it’s darkest before the dawn, and in this case, we can only hope it’s midnight. Whether it is, or not, whenever tomorrow morning comes, those of us who relentlessly advocate for those who make our dreams into reality will be there to welcome the sun, as a new, more equitable industry is born.

Rob Clement is a chef and owner of the Jewish pop-up deli Meshugganah. He recently announced a Kickstarter campaign for a permanent brick and mortar location. Previously, Clement was the executive chef at The Porter’s House and has studied under several James Beard nominated chefs.