Even before COVID-19 flashed it’s teeth, the value of working in kitchen jobs was diminishing, and it’s not getting better
Let me be clear: cooking is a beautiful thing, whether it is the little dance that comes with combining ingredients, or the aroma of spices doing what they do best. However, moving this into restaurants is something that doesn’t translate all too well. When the server puts down a dish in front of a consumer, it’s all too easy to forget that there was a team in the back that had to prepare the ingredients, for the team on shift to put it all together.
These kitchen teams are falling apart. As a whole, the restaurant industry has seen a massive decline in staffing since COVID-19 joined the party. Following shift reductions and pivots towards takeout and delivery service during lockdowns, many industry veterans departed, and many have not returned. While it would be easy to place the blame on government aid like CERB, the reasons are actually much simpler. Government benefits have mostly subsided and many positions are still empty.
In a recent conversation with a coworker, I was told that this phenomenon is not particularly related to the coronavirus. There are an abundance of reasons to avoid working in food service positions, even if you love cooking. For starters, it’s hot, the pay is low, stress often runs high, and kitchen staff generally don’t see much of what servers get to take home in tips. Throw a mask mandate into kitchens that are poorly ventilated and you’ve got some poor working conditions. Having worked the grill at a steakhouse this past summer, I can say with confidence that the mask becomes a wet rag with ease.
So, what’s the deal? In my own observations from peers in the industry and interactions with management teams, I can say that everybody just wants to keep their heads above water. Supply issues have reduced the number of menu items, and operating costs like rent, utilities and food prices have all gone up. This has created a predicament for restaurateurs who are trying to put together teams of competent employees while also trying to make some profit, if any.
For a while now, average restaurants have hired people they know they can get away with paying less: teenagers! For the business, this makes sense from an economic standpoint. You can get away with paying them minimum wage with the lure of potential tips and occasional free food.
The caveat is that you get what you pay for. Throw a bunch of 17-20 year olds with little-to-no experience into a busy kitchen, and see how fast things can fall apart. When orders start flowing in without pause and servers are calling out how much longer, they can start making mistakes and food starts getting sent back to the kitchen. The culinary assembly line can slow down, and can very easily fall apart if not for one or two leaders keeping them afloat.
This mass shortage of people willing to work in kitchens and at a high level makes this a good moment for industry veterans. In comparison to the skills of an everyman, seasoned kitchen people’s skills are highly sought after because even if they command a higher salary, restaurants can feel comfortable putting this money into capable hands. That being said, the key workers here have more leverage to ask for more from their employers compared to their teenage counterparts. After all, restaurants cannot be run without people in the back who prep the ingredients and those who put it all together during service hours.
Amidst the lack of people who want to work in a kitchen and the lack of people who know what they’re doing, people with veteran experience can demand more from their employers when negotiating terms of employment. More work-life balance and higher wages are usually at the top of the list, although work-life balance is harder to strike when restaurants everywhere are short staffed.
Though it would seem that wages would absolutely explode in response to the shortages, that hasn’t been the case. While some chain restaurants with corporate backing can afford to trickle down some extra compensation, many independent restaurants and chains alike have not moved their starting wages. As a whole, the notion that restaurant wages are rising mostly applies to kitchen lifers who have stayed in their original posts, or those who have been headhunted by other desperate kitchens. The average kitchen employee is not seeing any noticeable increase to their rate of pay.
What seems to have happened is that people who were laid off in the initial shutdowns have found jobs in other sectors, and rightfully so. This past spring while working at a new kitchen job, my personal qualm was: why should I work under these conditions for 15 dollars an hour, without breaks or free meals, when I could be making minimum wage by working anywhere else? Then, at least I’d be ending when I’m supposed to and get to leave my shift without being all sweaty and stressed. For example, at 40 hours a week, the difference in pay between a minimum wage job and a 15 dollars/hour job is largely negligible. When the toll of demanding restaurant work is weighed against a small difference in pay, minimum wage jobs end up being better in the end for those that can afford it.
Is there an answer to the problem at large? Is there a way for kitchen jobs to appreciate after trending downwards for so long? Having worked in a handful of restaurants since I was 17, and still working in one to this day, I can say with certainty that things are relatively bleak. I’ve worked in low, middle, and high-end places, but the bottom line is that all of these are trying to survive. I can cut them slack in that regard, but my coworkers and I are still people. We have goals, families and lives that transcend the kitchens in which we converge to make our living.
Making things better for both people and these businesses is a tricky balance to strike because it centres around money. Regardless of wages soaring or sinking, kitchen culture is never going to die. A bunch of slicked and sweaty people sharing cigarettes after dinner service is something that has stood the test of time.
If coworkers truly make the job, then those bonds will continue to mould regardless of what these kitchen teams are composed of. That kind of camaraderie amongst people who are in the service industry is not going to diminish over the lack or surplus of a few dollars an hour.
People are still leaving though, and kitchen teams are getting thinner and thinner — with the idea that things will return to normal being the only element holding them together.
Graphic by James Fay