The kitchen problem that could choke Pittsburgh’s thriving restaurant scene

Even restaurants that offer high wages and vacation time have problems hiring staff.

Sonja Finn's Dinette in East Liberty.

Sonja Finn's Dinette in East Liberty.

Jasmine Goldband / THE INCLINE
Sarah Anne Hughes

It began with a tweet.

Chef Sonja Finn, who owns and operates Dinette in East Liberty, sent from her account, “Line cook wanted at @dinettepgh. Will pay $1/hr more than @chefbillfuller plus you get to work with me.”

Bill Fuller is the head chef of Big Burrito Restaurant Group, the local powerhouse behind Casbah, Eleven, Kaya, Mad Mex, Soba and Umi.

“You sure you meant ‘plus’ and ‘get’?” he tweeted in response. “I think it should be ‘because’ and ‘have to’.”

It was clearly a playful conversation between two friends, but — like most jokes — it was rooted in the truth.

As Pittsburgh’s dining scene continues to add restaurants of a caliber previously reserved for dining capitals like New York, local chefs are dealing with a problem being felt across the country: a shortage of qualified staff.

“It’s always worse in the kitchen,” Fuller said.

“There’s a shortage of good dining room staff,” he added, but “the kitchen is where it’s really awful.”

In conversations with The Incline, Finn and Fuller pointed to the closure of local culinary schools as one major reason for the shortage. Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts’ Pittsburgh outpost, which had more than 800 students enrolled in 2009, closed in 2012.

“We don’t have that influx of students graduating,” Finn said, “or people coming to the city to go to culinary school.”

While they may help change the perception of Pittsburgh in coastal cities, dining-scene think pieces in the New York Times or honors from Bon Appétit haven’t translated into a rush of skilled workers moving to the city.  

“Even though Pittsburgh’s getting some national attention now, it doesn’t mean they move here for cooking jobs,” Finn said.

It’s unlikely wages alone could attract outsiders either. Back-of-the-house jobs like dishwasher are traditionally low-paying, and Fuller blames the current shortage in part on “an immigration standstill.”

“We missed any immigrant laborer influx,” he said, noting that as the steel industry crashed, there was no incentive for people new to the country to move to Pittsburgh.

Now, the people moving to Pittsburgh are white collar workers in the tech industry and those in their 20s and 30s. The type of people who want to have their cake (lower-cost city living) and to eat bone marrow, too.

“What we don’t have are the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Fuller said.

“You can get somebody to program your robot all day long, but you can’t get someone to make your lunch.”

Mad Mex in Shadyside.

Bill Fuller's Mad Mex in Shadyside.

Jasmine Goldband / THE INCLINE

Attracting talent — and keeping it

Over the past 10 years, Fuller said there have been “so many restaurant openings in the city.”

That was even true in the late 2000s, when the Great Recession reached its peak.

“People were gonna stop dining out and go back to cooking at home,” Fuller said. “That lasted for like a week.”

While the city’s dining scene has flourished despite the downturn, wages for restaurant workers in the region have remained stagnant.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for food industry employees in the Pittsburgh Metro Area was $9.29 as of May 2011. (It should be noted that statistical area encompasses Pennsylvania counties including Allegheny, Butler, Beaver and Washington.)

Four years later, in May 2015, the median wage was $9.23 an hour.

At the top of the food chain are chefs and head cooks, who had a median hourly wage of more than $19 in 2015, per the labor stats. Hovering around or below the $9 mark: servers, fast food workers, baristas, bartenders, short-order cooks and dishwashers.

“People just aren’t getting paid enough,” said Jordan Romanus of Restaurant Opportunities Center United in Pittsburgh, which supports progressive policies like eliminating the separate minimum wage for tipped employees. “They’re making a poverty wage.”

Fuller said Big Burrito pays at or above market wages, and Finn said she pays “a very high wage for all my staff.”

Dishwashers at Dinette, for example, start at $11.50 an hour with healthcare benefits. Back-of-the-house staff gets two weeks of paid vacation. 

Finn said she couldn’t imagine employing people who work hard but can’t pay their rent or bills because of low wages.

“It’s not the kind of employer I want to be,” she said.

This has had an unusual but perhaps unsurprising effect at Dinette: Since it opened in 2008, Finn said the staff has essentially stayed the same — save for the line cook whose position she tweeted about last month.

“Once you’re there and you can tell it’s a good working environment,” she said, “it is a way to retain people.”

Fuller, too, said Big Burrito is trying to make the culture better for its employees.

With fierce competition, a poorly treated employee can just go down the street for another job, he said. Big Burrito is working to give employees a “reasonable work week,” meaning managers work five “reasonable days” — rather than six 12-hour days — and cooks work four long days as opposed to more.

There’s an “honor in working all the time,” Fuller said. “They hang themselves on the cross.”

However, he added, changing an ingrained restaurant culture is going to be a process. 

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association — which has 240 member restaurants in Pittsburgh — said staffing is “an issue our operators from across the state face.”

She pointed to the pro-business group’s two yearly conferences, at which industry reps discuss retaining staff; a PRLA-run classified ads section; training it provides through ServSafe Managers’ Certification classes; and ProStart, a “two-year high school program for culinary arts and management” that it coordinates.

Pittsburgh Public Schools, too, is trying to prepare students for these jobs through its Career and Technical Education Division.

But restaurant staffing is a national problem, and it demands a national response, Fuller said.

“There has to be a change in the American culture.”

What comes next

Not all restaurants are embracing policies favored by pro-labor and progressive groups.

For example, some Pittsburgh restaurant owners take advantage of a federal standard that allows them to pay for their credit card processing fees by taking money out of an employee’s paycheck, according to ROC United’s Romanus. (This applies only to checks where the tip was left using a credit card, and the Department of Labor notes “this charge on the tip may not reduce the employee’s wage below the required minimum wage.”)

Then there’s the city’s paid sick leave law, which is tied up in court because of a lawsuit brought by the restaurant and lodging association, as well as Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville, Storms Restaurant Downtown and Modern Cafe on the North Side. 

An Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas judge ruled against the law in December 2015, and the city appealed the decision earlier this year. The involved parties are set to argue the case in Commonwealth Court this November.

In the interim, three restaurants — Apteka, Bantha Tea Bar and Mixtape — formed a Paid Sick Days Business District last month to show their support for the law.

“There is an appetite for it,” Romanus said. “People want to support these businesses.”

Romanus also believes that diners “deeply care” about worker mistreatment, which he claimed is not limited to chains.

According to Romanus, ROC United heard from service employees this July that temperatures in the kitchen of the much-lauded Morcilla had reached 120 degrees.

Through a spokesperson, Morcilla declined to comment on the allegation.

“It’s still an industry problem with how people are treated,” Romanus said.

With no major changes on the horizon, staffing issues are bound to continue in Pittsburgh, as established chefs open their second and third restaurants.

Moving forward, Fuller said restaurant owners and chefs will have to think about opening places that require fewer staff members. Maybe restaurants won’t be able to open on Monday and Tuesday, he said. Some restaurants will inevitably close.

Finn, who also serves as consulting chef for the Carnegie Museums, isn’t planning to open a second place of her own.

Instead, she’ll continue to focus on Dinette, where she’s the owner, chef, handyperson, HR department and more. She’s also in the midst of staffing up the Cafe Carnegie, set to reopen in November.

This week did bring some good news for Finn. She filled the line cook position at Dinette.

It took her six months.

Food Service Employment Stats for the Pittsburgh Metro Area

From May 2015, via the Bureau of Labor Statistics
Occupation titleEmploymentMedian hourly wageMean hourly wageAnnual mean wage
Food Preparation and Serving Related Occupations100,910$9.23$10.40$21,640
Chefs and Head Cooks1,070$19.69$20.54$42,730
First-Line Supervisors of Food Preparation and Serving Workers6,280$15.10$16.48$34,270
Cooks, Fast Food1,640$8.76$8.80$18,310
Cooks, Institution and Cafeteria3,740$12.37$12.37$25,740
Cooks, Restaurant11,350$10.45$11.08$23,040
Cooks, Short Order1,390$9.06$9.34$19,430
Food Preparation Workers6,180$10.16$10.36$21,540
Combined Food Preparation and Serving Workers, Including Fast Food24,960$8.74$9.04$18,800
Counter Attendants, Cafeteria, Food Concession, and Coffee Shop1,920$8.65$8.98$18,690
Waiters and Waitresses21,990$9.06$9.97$20,730
Food Servers, Nonrestaurant1,970$10.23$10.52$21,890
Dining Room and Cafeteria Attendants and Bartender Helpers2,720$8.73$9.84$20,460
Hosts and Hostesses, Restaurant, Lounge, and Coffee Shop3,900$9.10$9.77$20,320
Food Preparation and Serving Related Workers, All Other200$10.38$10.68$22,210