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These newbies to the workforce used to fuel the food-services industry as grub slingers. Today there are plenty of opportunities for work that doesn’t involve hot oil vats with fry buzzers sounding, causing a labour shortage in B.C. of food service workers.

The skilled-labour shortage in B.C.’s trades sectors has been threatening the economy for years now. The pressure to find enough bodies means that kids fresh out of high school have no trouble finding work in oil fields and on construction sites and are even offered accelerated apprentice programs into lucrative trades such as plumbing and carpentry.

The problem is, these newbies to the workforce used to fuel the food-services industry. Today there are plenty of opportunities for work that doesn’t involve hot oil vats with fry buzzers sounding, wrinkled-prune fingers dripping with grey sudsy water or tip trays loaded up with disappointing nickels and pennies.

The labour shortage seems to have hit the kitchen hardest. Cooks are hard to find and harder to keep. “It’s not an unskilled job, but it is also not a chef” (which requires some schooling), explains Gillian MacGregor, PR specialist with the B.C. Restaurant & Foodservices Association (BCRFA). “Schools are training a lot of chefs, but none of them want to start at the bottom.” Assiduous employees are taking advantage of the training at one place and quickly move on and up. Poaching is commonplace.

As a result, restaurants are struggling to fill the void left by workers who have been lured away by desperate employers with deep pockets. It would take a paradigm shift to reverse the transitional nature of the restaurant industry and give it more stability. The BCRFA likes the changes that are afoot. “Employees don’t have to stand for old standards like not paying overtime or creaming off the tips [to cover dine and dashes or breakages],” says MacGregor.

It’s great news for workers who have stuck it out. It means higher salaries, better benefits, quicker raises, paid tuition for some and even medical and dental benefits.

Gerald Tritt, part owner of the Vancouver-based Taco Shack, with two outlets in Kitsilano, says the help-wanted sign in his window is a permanent fixture. Frank Mandarino, GM of the White Spot at Georgia and Cardero streets, has turned to innovative retention programs to fight the labour shortage. Select cooks have their Red Seal apprenticeship training tuition paid for, dishwashers get promoted to the cooking line and employees who show an interest in management are offered advancement opportunities. Still, Mandarino often has to hire foreign students temporarily to fill gaps.

So what’s it like for the ones who – often for the love of the industry and a passion for food – have chosen a career behind the counter?

BCBusiness decided to find out. We pulled together a random sampling of the personalities behind B.C.’s vibrant but brutally competitive restaurant sector.

Owen Knowlton

Age: 33

Job title: wine director at West Restaurant in Vancouver

Salary range: $50,000–$60,000 a year

Duties: tasting wine, educating customers about wine, buying wine

It’s hard not to be jealous of a man who spends half of his working hours tasting wine. Owen Knowlton is a sommelier certified by the International Sommelier Guild and buys all of the wine for West, the South Granville hot spot. The certification requires more than an appreciation for wine; applicants must pass a blind taste test in which they identify the grape and maker of the wine (knowing the vintage is good for bonus points). Knowlton agrees that his position is “a bit of a dream job.” But he downplays it, citing the stress of running around and the high expectations of an increasingly knowledgeable clientele. Customers want to learn about the wines they drink, and their palates have become more sophisticated. This trend makes the position of wine director exceptionally valuable, which leads Knowlton to believe there are no limits to his career trajectory. According to Knowlton, a good wine director creates a wine list that has the best wines in every price range and a selection that pairs well with the cuisine of the establishment. West has four servers who are certified sommeliers like Knowlton, so even when he is not there, the customer always has an expert on hand. It’s good business because, as Knowlton explains, “the restaurant sees better wine sales while the server is tipped on a higher bill.”

Devon Bradley

Age: 18

Job title: part-time dishwasher at White Spot in Vancouver (Cardero Street); part-time line cook at the Westminster Club in New Westminster

Salary range: $8–$12/hr.

Duties: preparing foods at various stations including deep-fry, sauté, entree, pasta, salad, dessert and milkshakes; washing dishes

Devon Bradley started in the dish pit when he was 17. It wasn’t the most glamorous job, but it did have a certain Zen factor. Plus, he needed the money. Having just dropped out of school and moved out of his parents’ home, he had to find a way to support himself quickly, and part-time jobs at White Spot and the Westminster Club seemed to be the immediate answer. He climbed his way out of the dish pit at the Westminster Club after a few months. Once the cooks noticed he had an interest in learning about the kitchen, they taught him skills whenever they had a chance. Bradley developed a love for cooking. “I’d rather be a broke line cook than making a million dollars doing something else,” he insists. He is referring to his few days spent working in construction and his friends who are still there, trapped by the paycheque. He has his sights set on owning his own restaurant one day, but for now he’s concentrating on soaking up techniques from his workplace mentors and honing his skills. “We’re not saving the world or curing cancer, but someone is going to eat that and they paid good money for it.”

Garett Weston

Age: 20

Job title: kitchen leader at White Spot in Coquitlam

Salary range: $12–$15/hr. plus percentage of tip pool

Duties: drawing up schedules, ordering food, inventory, supervising cleanup, prep, fill-in for head cook and kitchen manager

At 4:00 p.m. midweek, Garett Weston stands back and watches his kitchen at work, halfway between the lunch rush and the dinner push. Everything’s in order. Weston has come a long way from flipping Triple O burgers at the PNE. The kitchen manager, Steve Langridge, is happy to have him in his kitchen; Weston is calm under pressure and is committed to a career in cooking. White Spot struck a deal with Weston; it will pay for his Red Seal schooling and, in return, he has committed to staying with the company. This and progressive internal advancement opportunities are enough to make Weston loyal. Being a cook isn’t for everyone. Weston thrives on what many would see as too stressful: the panic and rush when the pressure is on. He perks up from his cautious, even response to interview questions when he talks about the adrenalin of the job. “You have to come prepared to sweat,” he says. “It’s all about timing, multi-tasking and juggling like crazy.”

Gerryl Figueroa

Age: 31

Job title: tortilla maker at the Taco Shack in Vancouver (Kits Beach)

Salary range: $8–$9/hr.

Duties: making tortillas, cooking them on the grill

It’s 10:00 on a Saturday morning and Gerryl Figueroa is quietly transferring soft tortillas, one by one, to the grill. There’s a mist of perspiration on her intent face, and a big red apron drowns her petite frame. She checks each one carefully and flips them with her hands until they’ve reached perfection. Figueroa has found a contentedness in a job few would want, a mundane and simple task. It’s a part-time job. The rest of her time is consumed being a full-time nanny. It’s a lot of work, but she didn’t come from the Philippines five years ago to vacation. “I like working. I like being a nanny, but I wanted other experiences,” she says, dismissing her strong work ethic as she anxiously eyes the stack of tortillas still waiting to be cooked. Much of the extra money she makes here goes back to the Philippines, where her husband is waiting for the opportunity to join her. Figueroa doesn’t know when that will happen. She hopes it will be soon because she doesn’t want to do this forever. She wants to go to college to study computer science, but until she can afford such a freedom, she’ll keep flipping tortillas.

Thierry Busset

Age: 40

Job title: Pastry chef at CinCin Ristorante & Bar in Vancouver

Salary range: $10 to more than $30/hr.

Duties: making pastry

In France, land of the croissant and petit four, “pastry chef” is a highly respected, sought-after title. Thierry Busset believes he has found that same respect in Canada since his arrival seven years ago. That could be in part because his resumé includes some of Europe’s top restaurants and he boasts that he helped the Restaurant in London’s Hyde Park Hotel earn its third Michelin Star. He’s not shy about his accomplishments, and his creamy French accent inspires you to forgive his (possibly justified) arrogance. Competitors face huge challenges finding chefs, but not Busset, because he’s got a reputation. The last time he posted a position for an assistant, he got 50 applicants, which flies in the face of reports of today’s horrendous labour shortage threatening the service industry. Sitting at the bar in CinCin, he is taking a mid-afternoon break from his baking and supervision of two young pastry chefs. Busset prefers to get pastry chefs early in their career so he can teach them how to do things his way. He is candid and passionate about his work, especially when it comes to developing the menu. “I don’t like to use organics; the season is too short,” he explains without a hint of apology. Where does a pastry chef go when he is already working at one of the most reputable restaurants in Vancouver? Yes, even Busset, who is seemingly at the top of his game, has his sights set higher. The next step is opening a pastry shop in Vancouver, but he will wait for the right opportunity and the right location before he heads out on his own. He’s seen too many fail.

Daune Campbell

Age: 36

Job title: server at the Cheshire Cheese Inn in Vancouver

Salary range: $8/hr. plus tips (anywhere from $50 to $150 a night)

Duties: taking orders, delivering food to tables, providing details of the menu

Ask Daune Campbell what her name is while she’s waiting on your table at the Cheshire Cheese Inn and she will reply with a simple “just call me waitress.” It’s not that she’s being humble or subservient; it’s that familiarity leads to fewer tips. “As soon as they know my name, they consider me a friend and they don’t feel like they have to tip as much,” she explains. Working as a server off and on for the last 20 years, she’s got her horror stories. But she’s also got her share of regulars, even a few who make the extra effort to come out to see her perform with her theatre company Shameless Hussy Productions. Acting is her career; the serving thing just pays the bills. One of the reasons Campbell stays is that the restaurant has agreed to accommodate her schedule. She used to quit every time she needed a few months off, but the process got tiresome, so management now just allows her the leave. She hopes she won’t have to be an on-again, off-again server for too much longer. Grant approvals for her production company would mean she could focus on theatre full-time. “It’s hard work. You’re running around all night, on your feet and the people are so predictable and they don’t even know it. It’s tedious, really.” She knows which ones will cheap out on the tip and which ones will try to take their personal problems out on her. Campbell claims the only way she’s been able to stay in the game this long is to stop taking things personally. She dispenses this advice to other servers: “How a customer treats you can stick with you for days if you let it. Most of them don’t realize how abusive they are, so just let it go. It’s just a job.”

James Walt

Age: 40

Job title: executive chef at Araxi Restaurant and Lounge in Whistler

Salary range: $60,000 to more than $100,000 a year

Duties: developing a menu, managing controls, nurturing talent in the kitchen

James Walt may wear a white collar in the kitchen of this internationally acclaimed restaurant, serving up his take on contemporary regional cuisine, but his family once worried about Walt landing in a blue-collar job. He stumbled into the food-service industry at age 13 when he worked as a landscaper at a new restaurant. That parlayed into a kitchen position when the restaurant opened its doors, and he knew immediately what he was meant to do. He loved the way the job used all of his senses. He fought pressure from his family, who wanted young Walt to attend university and earn a professional designation. They held a common opinion: being a chef is nothing to aspire to and certainly not the appropriate choice for an intelligent young man from a well-educated family. But in the last 15 years, they’ve come onside. “It can be like a rock star, being a celebrity chef,” he says with a laugh over the phone from Whistler. But it’s not all VIP treatment and food groupies, he insists. Running a restaurant in the resort town of Whistler means he sees a higher-than-average staff turnover, notably when the snow melts. To keep his talent pool well stocked, he tracks the students at chef schools across Canada, using Whistler as a lure for the most impressive graduates. Staffing isn’t his only challenge: running a restaurant in a seasonal economy means he is slammed for eight months of the year during peak season and then business slows during the shoulder seasons, which makes it hard to manage costs.

Click here for a slideshow of the owners, servers, cooks and dishwashers who keep the fires burning.