We have just passed our one-year anniversary here at Harry’s and I thought I would share what I think now as a chef compared to myself a year ago.
When I think back to just one year ago, I am surprised by how naive I was with a lot of things, not just cooking but what it’s really like being the owner of a restaurant. I stop and think back to my past experiences in kitchens and seeing owners and chefs make “questionable” decisions in unique situations which, at the time I couldn’t understand, but now I do. Funny, the same phenomenon happened after I became a parent. Truth is I’m scared after one year in, not just for the survival of my restaurant but for the future of mom and pop restaurants.
I have taken on the task of running the kitchen by myself not because I think working alone is wonderful but because I can’t afford any help. In fact I love working alongside others and learning from each other. That’s how I’ve made it this far in cooking. However with the increase in wages it has made a small restaurant like mine struggle to keep up. As the only cook no matter how good I might be I still can only do so much during our service because in kitchens you’re always battling the clock. If we can do the high quality of food and service that my wife and I are doing now, imagine what we could do with an army. Sadly, however, in our current times that army would bankrupt us before we could even go into battle. So what do we sacrifice? Our quality of food in order to pay for help or, stick to our standards even if it means doing it alone? It’s a numbers game and right now I’m losing.
Last week I was in my local grocery store doing some shopping for the family when I realized as I was standing in the checkout line that there weren’t any baggers around. I watched as customers along with the cashiers bagged all the groceries. When it was my turn, I asked the nice cashier where all the baggers were and she told me that the store couldn’t really afford that position anymore and further told me that they have plans for installing more self-checkout lanes to help decrease the cashiers in order to reduce the labor cost.
It opened my eyes to how the times are really changing. These are supposed to be entry level positions with entry level pay but with the increase in wages we now are starting to force companies to figure out how to make machines do the work for them instead. When I started out in cooking about 20 years ago, you were grateful just to land a spot in a decent kitchen for minimum wage which was around $8 back then. You were taught to climb the ladder with hard work and good integrity. Today employers not only have to worry about watching the labor costs very closely but also have to really invest in who they hire now.
It’s a lot different if I were to have two entry level spots open for starting pay. Now, however, those entry level positions have to become only one position and also costing me a lot more. So, I now need someone for this entry level position with experience. I say it this way because I saw a video of a group of young adults who are choosing not to work, not to go to school or even become trained because they say that people, especially employers, only look for experience and are not willing to train. So, they say, why bother with life goals and they decide to just live off others. Is this the mentality of what’s to come? While talking to my representative of one of my purveyors they informed me that they would be increasing my order minimum by 33%. Now to a corporate kitchen that wouldn’t mean much, however, to a small operation it’s a big deal when it comes to budgeting. Of course, I asked the reason for the increase.
They explained that the bottom line was the increase in wages and a decrease in truck drivers. I understood the first one but inquired more about the truck drivers. The representative said there has been a decrease in people applying as drivers because younger adults see truck driving as a “beneath them” position. So, in order to keep enough drivers they have to increase their pay which means the products they sell will also have to increase to meet the demand.
Restaurants are a tough business and it’s all about the numbers. With the rising increase of wages, we will see a flood of changes soon and, with it, most of those hidden gem restaurants you love to visit will not survive. Why does this concern me the most? Because a year ago when I bought the restaurant all I wanted to do was cook, the biggest concern I had was having enough time to get all my prep done, and now look at the things I must concern myself with.
I worry for tomorrow’s changes, but someone once taught me to live in the now and make the best with the time given before it’s gone. That’s my discovery. Just like in my kitchen as in my life I’ll always be battling the clock. Because no matter how much I try I can never get those minutes back and I have no idea what the next minute holds for me. So, this is my time in the kitchen, and I plan on rocking out the good cooking and the excellent service in our little nook till the wheels fall off, because eventually the numbers will catch up sooner or later. So, support your local small businesses! You will always find consistency in corporate restaurants, but the love is always found in mom and pop operations.
To the restaurant owners, past and present, win or lose, in this business the respect goes to those who dare take the field. Our work is and always will be, service to others.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ~ T. Roosevelt