I’m not sure where other businesses are on the spectrum, but our new experience is that, while we have a sudden torrent of applications and resumes, and we’re grateful to have anyone interested in working with us, the vast majority of people applying are those who have precious little understanding of the positions they’re applying for. Six months ago, we were lucky to get an application or two over the course of a month; now, there’s an outpouring, but they’re woefully unqualified- running a cash register at a fast food chain doesn’t teach you timing multiple courses with a kitchen that’s slow one minute and busy the next; or wine knowledge, or service basics.
In the kitchen, where we’ve been desperately in need of a sauté cook since the heartbreaking and untimely passing of one of our own, and our applicants- far fewer than those for server positions- have uniformly been from twenty-somethings who are interested in learning how to cook, and more often than not, have no kitchen experience. A big chunk have no work experience. Whatsoever.
In years past, we’ve been happy to adopt one or two motivated kids and teach them the ins and outs of the kitchen, but you can’t compose an entire staff of people with no background. Even when we have one or two of them in our number- as we do now-the effect it has is substantial. Even at an entry level wage, the amount of food wasted by a new staff member is substantial. Burned or incorrectly seasoned food finds its way into our daily routine, ruined batches of pastry are necessarily disposed of, and uninformed decisions are made without constant supervision.
And labor cost increases too. I can still see the original chef de cuisine’s bulging veins when he told me 34 years ago at Cafe Terra Cotta that I should be deveining shrimp three times as fast as I was, and I could feel my own veins bulge when I explained to one of our own staff who’d misassembled a food mill to the point where it was rendered useless. When I walked past him two hours after he’d begun a twenty-minute job of making mashed potatoes and he was still flummoxed as to what was wrong, trying to squeeze the potatoes in gloved hands to force them through the screen, we took it apart to discover a part put in upside-down. It’s bad enough not to ask for help in putting together a machine you’ve never used before, but to spend two hours on it with no progress and not have it dawn on you that perhaps there’s an issue? It’s a mistake he won’t make again, but if you want to know why it costs more and more to dine out, it’s not just the spike in food costs and delivery fuel surcharges. It’s the fact that restaurants can’t keep the doors open without a crew, and many of us are perforce using what warm bodies walk through the door, since the other option is to close for lunch, or on a slower day, which we don’t relish either. A quick calculation the other day gave me a figure of $20,000 or more a month in lost revenue to close on a slow day- that’s almost half a payroll, or nearly two mortgage payments.
It’s harder and harder to smile when a well-meaning guest says, “aren’t you happy you’ve made it through the pandemic?” We, like most small businesses, haven’t. I’ll regard us as having made it through the pandemic when we can place an ad and have even two or three applicants who are qualified for the job they’re applying for. I’ll regard us as having made it through when then the staff isn’t burned out and exhausted, when everyone can work what hours they want to work because they’re able to have child care they can afford, and not suddenly find themselves pulled out to oversee zoom schooling when a classroom shuts down with an outbreak. I’ll regard us as having made it through when the managers of Feast and I don’t begin our day with a volley of texts to figure out how to replace the foodrunner who fell into a cactus, or the vacationing cook, or the extra staffing we’ll need for a catering or a private event, and when supply line for the artichokes we were promised for the new menu doesn’t suddenly drop out from under us.
We haven’t made it through the pandemic- none of us has- and while some of us bear the brunt more than others, we’re all members of the same society, and if we’re not all supporting one another, or even if we aren’t, the ripple will eventually reach everyone.
For now, I’m grateful that we have former coworkers who are willing to cover here and there- if you come in for dinner in the next couple of weeks, you may well, to run into Lydia or Amie, and most of you never knew Nancy in the kitchen, but she hasn’t worked here in 13 or 14 years, but she’s in the kitchen right now as I write, and I can’t thank her enough for it.
It’s friends like these who allow us to keep things going, business as usual, for the time being. We can keep on schedule with our donation runs
and our wine tastings,
and with any luck, our April menu will change on time next Tuesday, but they’ve got lives outside of Feast, more so now that they have other jobs elsewhere, and we can’t do this forever. Here’s hoping that the influx of job applications continues to increase, for us and for everyone, and that the people looking for work are people who’ve done this work a time of two before. Deep breath.