THE RESTAURANT — Time for a nice evening out and let someone else do all the work. But I’ve been standing here at the maître d’ desk for some time, and no one has come to seat me. A waiter passes by. “Excuse me,” I say, “but could someone seat us?” He laughs. “Just grab any table you want, and take the dirty dishes back to the kitchen.” This is strange. It’s a nice place, with real tables and chairs, no drive-thru plastic clowns or health department notice on the front door. Given no choice, I find a table, clean it off and head to the kitchen. There I find several other customers washing dishes and frying frog legs.
“It’s the shortage,” a neurosurgeon says, looking up from his skillet of bacon and potatoes. “Hand me that platter of crumpets, will you?” After I cook my dinner, eat and clean off the table, I look for the restaurant’s manager. I ask her just what is going on. “We can’t find enough help,” she says. “Restaurants all over America are hurting for workers, but there aren’t any. It’s a combination of a tight labor market and an explosion of new restaurants. It’s a one-two punch that has made finding and keeping help extremely difficult everywhere.”
That explains why service in eateries is so slow, kitchens are backed up and customers’ complaints are growing. At home I do a bit of research. In 2017, the National Restaurant Association reported that 37 percent of its members said labor recruitment was their top challenge, up from just 15 percent two years earlier. Traditional low profit margins in the restaurant industry don’t leave much room to do what most businesses do in tight labor markets — increase wages. So restauranteurs are having to find other ways to attract and hold onto workers. This means hiring ex-cons, the mentally challenged, deadbeats who have been fired from other restaurants, the formerly homeless, recovering addicts and the totally unfit to hold any other job. That last category explains why at a local morning café, the Wild Brunch, my scrambled eggs also featured feathers and a beak.
To attract and keep good employees, restaurant owners are offering incentives, like repaying culinary-school tuition for their chefs, tequila-tasting seminars, flexible schedules and a faster pipeline up the ranks. Taco Bell and McDonald’s both announced in recent weeks that they would expand programs to help employees pay for college tuition. Also, chefs are forced to be nice to their kitchen help. Apparently, it used to be normal for super chefs to shout at workers, insult their culinary tastes and speed. No more.
And I read in the paper that the #MeToo movement has had an impact as well. Celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and John Besh have been accused of harassing and discriminatory practices. This puts a damper on hiring workers, particularly women.
Then there is the growth in dining out. The nation added 15,145 restaurants, a net increase of 2.5 percent, just between the third quarters of 2016 and 2017, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. In November, the last month for which data is available, food service accounted for half of all net job growth in Washington, D.C., a 7.5 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Department of Labor. Another reason for the labor shortage in our restaurants is the Trump immigration program. Dishwashers and other low-wage restaurant workers have long been recruited from the nation’s undocumented work force. Go to the back of any restaurant kitchen and yell, “ICE!” The place would empty in seconds. Now days many restaurateurs are afraid of just that.
I am now at my local French fruit café, the Maginot Lime, which fears being invaded by the German beer garden next door, the Munchen Luncheon, formerly the Munich Appeasement.
(Incidentally, the oldest restaurant in Texas is German: my old college hangout: Scholz Garten in Austin, 1866.) I borrow the wet, filthy rag the busboy is using on all the tables, (do you notice that situation at virtually every restaurant?) and wipe off an empty table. The place is full of customers, and no wonder. According to Zagat, the foodies’ bible, Houstonians eat out for lunch or dinner 4.8 times per week, compared to the national average of 4.5. Houston diners spend an average of $36.49 per meal, which is several dollars less than the national average of $39.40. Eighteen percent of Houstonians polled by Zagat said their favorite foods are Italian and seafood. That’s a far cry from the rest of the nation. Twenty-four percent of Americans say Italian is their favorite cuisine, while only10 percent choose seafood as a favorite. Get his: 16 percent of Houstonians say their favorite food is Tex-Mex, compared to only seven percent nationally.
Still waiting. No waiter, no food. The Houston area is known for its ethnic diversity, and this is especially true of restaurants. There are 10,000 places to eat in and around the Bayou City — everything from those weeks-old hotdogs slowly spinning at the neighborhood convenience stores to white table cloth dining where the waiters dress in a tux and speak fluent snobbery. I move down the block to a new seafood café, Sleeping Wit da Fishes “Where the mobsters meet the lobsters.” There was a line of black Packards parked out front, and I had to knock three times before I was let in. “Dis is what ya gonna have,” said my waiter, Knuckles deVito, as I sat down. He put a plate of lasagna and spaghetti in front of me, poured a glass of Chianti and said, “Dat’ll be a hundred flat. It’s an offer ya can’t refuse.” I refused. The doctor said I should be up and around in a few weeks.
So now we know why many restaurants are lousy, with overworked cooks, surly waiters and busboys wiping with deadly diseased rags. Now hand me that spatula.
Ashby is hungry at firstname.lastname@example.org