By Ed Staskus
There’s an old-school saw that says if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. That’s exactly what most people do, assuming they’ve stepped foot into the kitchen in the first place.
Restaurants have one of the highest employee turnover rates of any kind of business. Voluntary turnover across all businesses, according to the Department of Labor, is about one of every five every year. In the food service business the voluntary turnover rate is more than one of two every year, never mind the involuntary rate.
But, before there can be turnover there has to be staff. Since the end of the Great Recession in 2009 both hoagie shop and fancy restaurant owners have seen more and more vacancies for positions from part-time hostess to experienced sous chef.
From San Francisco to New York City there are not enough restaurant staffers.
“It’s become a much tighter and more competitive work environment,” said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, in 2013. “The economy is on the road to recovery and the talent pool is thinner.”
“If he’s a dog we’ll figure it out and we’ll get rid of him in the first week,” said Jeff Black of the upscale Black Restaurant Group in Washington, DC. “But, we need bodies. We need people that want to wait on tables.”
The recruitment problems big restaurants in big cities have are not any different than the problems small restaurants in small towns have.
Still looking for experienced staff for front and back of the house. This will probably be your best job ever. Liquids and Solids, Facebook, June 6, 2010.
Liquids and Solids, a small, edgy new wave gastropub in the Adirondacks, in Lake Placid, New York, opened on June 6, 2010.
“When we opened it was just us,” said Keegan Konkoski, co-restaurateur and owner with Tim Loomis. “Tim would be in the kitchen all day and I’d be at the bar all day and we had two servers.”
One of the servers was Keegan’s sister, Jamie.
“Before we opened we thought Tim would have no problem staffing his kitchen. He’s a culinary graduate of Paul Smith’s, a lot of their students will want to be here and work with him, do a little internship.”
An alumnus of Paul Smith’s College in nearby Paul Smith, New York, Tim Loomis interned in France and has worked at, among others, the Wawbeek Lodge, Lake Placid Lodge, and the Freestyle in Lake Placid.
“We thought finding him help would be so easy, but we are picking bones.”
Looking in from the outside, work done by other people can sound easy. How hard is it to cut carrots and wash dishes? But, working in a restaurant, being on your feet all the time, is physically demanding.
“The business, it sucks. It’s hard,” said Bryan Dayton of OAK at Fourteenth in Denver, Colorado.
“It can be back-breaking work,” said Keegan.
Dishwashers are unsung and underpaid and it’s easy to overlook how important they are, hunched over and hidden away in a steamy back corner, until you don’t have one.
We are looking for a special guest sanitation engineer for Thursday night. All you can eat and drink! Liquids and Solids, Facebook, December 21, 2010.
“The worst days of service that I have had, both as hourly employee and as manager, have been when there was no dishwasher,” said Matthew Stinton, the beverage director at several New York City restaurants and wine bars. “Not having a dishwasher will fuck your world up and make you rethink the way you do things.”
One of the predicaments Liquids and Solids faces every year is that it is a seasonal eatery. It is open year-round, but has to deal with summertime spikes, which complicates staffing and inventory levels.
Need summer help, both departments, liquids and solids. Liquids and Solids, Facebook, June 21, 2011.
“We definitely have our downtime,” said Keegan, “so we try to make as much as we can when we’re busy because it slowly depletes after that.”
“We try to bang it,” said Tim.
After Columbus Day Liquids and Solids cuts its hours, closing Sundays and Mondays, refreshes itself for several weeks during the Christmas and New Year holidays, and then sits back on its haunches waiting for spring.
When spring comes the snow melts, birds sing, and the heavy lifting starts.
L & S needs some strong bodies tomorrow to help move some equipment. Volunteers will be rewarded! Contact Tim if you want to help. Liquids and Solids, Facebook, May 24, 2012.
A challenge all hands-on restaurant owners face is the amount of time their restaurants demand of them.
“If you are not prepared to never see your family, never have a holiday, then you are not prepared to be in the restaurant business,” observed Cory Bahr of Nonna in Monroe, Louisiana.
Tim Loomis’s day starts at 8 in the morning. It ends 14 or 15 hours later.
“One of the main guys I’ve worked with over the years, as soon as service was done he was out,” said Tim. “I don’t like doing that. I try to be there and help clean, but if it’s not clean by 11 o’clock, I’ve got to go.”
No one can do everything. While Mr. Loomis is in the kitchen with his crew, and Ms. Konkoski is behind the bar, and the hostess and servers are at their stations, the bathrooms at Liquids and Solids are left unattended.
Largely a relic of the past, bathroom attendants who clean the facilities and dispense mints, mouthwash, chewing gum and cigarettes, are today usually only found in big-time night clubs and restaurants, although in Japan they are being replaced with ladybug robots.
It isn’t a bathroom attendant who’s needed sometimes so much as a bathroom bouncer.
L & S is seeking a full-time bathroom attendant due to recent acts of vandalism on the bathrooms. Three air fresheners have gone missing, pennies are dropped in the toilet daily, and stickers from the paper towel dispenser have been removed. A picture was ripped off the wall and thrown into the garbage can! Two screws were holding it up. It had beautiful boobs on it. Who does not like boobs? Please apply in person. Protect against prudes. Liquids and Solids, Facebook, June 7, 2012.
Recruiting, training, and retaining staff is one of the toughest jobs restaurant owners have. They are always, especially if they are small businesses, at the mercy of unforeseen absences, such as sick leave or a family emergency. They don’t have the back-up staff to provide coverage.
“Food may rot and burn, but at least it doesn’t run off to Alaska with an oil-pipeline worker before lunch. Help will do that, and much, much more, creating an anarchy that acts upon the kitchen’s atmosphere like a handful of sand thrown into a spinach salad,” wrote Kimberly Snow in ‘Why You Don’t Want to Run a Restaurant’.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics almost 370,000 people are employed as dishwashers nationwide. And they aren’t just the dish crew. They clean and mop, take out the garbage, and unclog toilets. They are sanitation engineers.
L & S is looking for a guest sanitation engineer for Saturday night, no experience needed. A good grasp of 80s movies is helpful. $60.00 plus food and beverages. Must be 21. Contact Tim. Liquids and Solids, Facebook, September 7, 2012.
The position has been filled by Ryan MacDonald, who will be making the trek from East Burke, Vermont, just to make a guest appearance in the pit. Liquids and Solids, Facebook, September 7, 2012, a few hours later.
“We generally don’t have any problems early in the morning,” said Keegan. “We have our meeting between 9 and 10 and everything is usually copasetic.”
After their morning meeting Keegan does the books, goes mountain biking or cross country skiing, and then returns to Liquids and Solids in the early afternoon, where she remains until the end of the night.
“Hopefully I don’t get a text from Tim about a catastrophe,” she said. “But, there’s always something, the air conditioning broke, someone’s dog died and they can’t come to work, it could be anything. Every week there’s something.”
Sometimes that something is a chore most restaurants don’t have to contend with anymore in the 21st century.
Well, here we are lookin’ for help again. Winter wood is being delivered tomorrow and we need help moving it. Start time around 11. Dinner to all volunteers. Liquids and Solids, Facebook, September 21, 2012.
“We do our own town dump runs, too,” said Keegan.
While hostesses and servers are charming, and bartenders are patient and accommodating, working in a hot kitchen, a very hot kitchen, where you are not supposed to drop anything no matter how hot the thing is, dead-lifting heavy boxes on a floor that is slippery and slightly pitched for drainage reasons, on your feet for 10 hours straight, where it’s not OK to not have whatever you’re cooking ready when the chef says its has to be ready, in a tight space where there is no personal space, is another matter.
“When it’s busy, in the heat of service, Tim’s awesome, but he can get ornery,” said Keegan. “We don’t need to sugarcoat that.”
Kitchen staffs can be thick as thieves and at each other’s throats at the same time. That’s why so many off-color jokes are bantered in restaurant kitchens.
“They would make every inappropriate joke in the book,” said Marla Gilman, who worked the line at Liquids and Solids for a year, about her colleagues. “But, it wasn’t real. There were never any hard feelings.”
Team Kitchen is now seeking a sanitation engineer for 2 – 3 nights a week. Must have a strong background in 80s and 90s pop culture and appreciate both punk rock and classic country. If this sounds like you, walk right into the kitchen and talk to Tim. Please, no sensitive people. Liquids and Solids, Facebook, July 9, 2013.
Liquids and Solids is a laid-back gastropub in a small town on a quiet street across the street from a lumberyard. Like all businesses they have their own standards. Unlike many businesses, especially those that are seemingly laid-back, those standards are first-class.
“The farm-to-table cuisine at Liquids and Solids wins rave reviews,” wrote Diane Bair and Pamela Wright in 2013 in the Boston Globe. “Creative plates like beef heart ragout with gnocchi. Among the liquids, the sinus-clearing ‘maple and spice’ bourbon cocktail gets its kick from cayenne pepper.”
Although being the best may be a false goal, measuring success by doing your best is certainly a true goal.
Servers and wait staff are said to be the front of the house and cooks and chefs the back of the house. Some restaurants, especially those with a reputation for great food, employ expediters, the middle of the house, who make sure that orders are cooked and plated in a timely fashion.
Looking for an exciting Friday and Saturday night from 8:30 – 10 PM? We need an expediter! Pays money, food, drink, and time with Tim. If you don’t know what an expediter is, don’t volunteer. Liquids and Solids, Facebook, February 7, 2014.
“We try to create a fun atmosphere because we know it’s hard work,” said Keegan. “But, it has to be professional. We have to make sure everything gets done correctly.”
“At the end of the day that needs to go there and that needs to be cleaned,” said Tim.
All of which is easier said than done unless you stick to it all day long.
“This job will consume you,” said Bryan Dayton of OAK. “We work long hours. Yesterday I worked an 18-hour day. On a Wednesday.”
Attention to detail means restaurant owners often have little in the way of a social life. Their husbands, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends have to be saints because their loved one is the one who unlocks and locks the doors every day and night. Not only that, your loved one is always on call. Personal time for holidays becomes a thing of the past.
Need someone to spend Valentine’s evening with? We need a dishwasher that evening. In fact, we are looking for a full time or part time person. Liquids and Solids, Facebook, February 11, 2014.
“Restaurant work is a hard life,” said Keegan. “One of the things that burns us a lot is when someone working at a restaurant says, oh, that’s not my real job.
“Say it’s not your real job one more time…”
Busy restaurant kitchens are not just intolerably hot rooms full of people in fire resistant white jackets. They are fast-paced pressure cooker rooms in which you don’t want to be wearing glasses because they soon will be clouded by oily steam, keeping you from keeping track of your fellow cooks and chefs who might or might not be in a bad mood that day, but who are certainly armed with sharp knives and cleavers.
“I attacked the last croissant with a cleaver, not stopping until I’d mashed every little flake of pastry into a greasy mass,” wrote Kimberly Snow, describing how “something snaps in you.”
“It’s tough,” said Tim. “Our guys work hard, so it’s hard to walk away, to not be here.”
hiring IN KITCHN. don’t NEED TO BE SMRT. JUST HARDWERKIN. Liquids and Solids, Facebook, August 21, 2014.
Commercial restaurant work is not for everyone because it is hard work. It is the kind of hard work that has to be done even though you are dog-tired from already working hard all day. There is the laundry issue, too: when kitchen staff does their wash it is always very smelly laundry.
Restaurants don’t pool tips for the back-of-the house dishwashers, cooks, and chefs like they do for wait staff. But, at Liquids and Solids, just like you can add an egg to a menu item for a buck, you can add a buck to your bill at the end of the night for the kitchen’s beer fund.
“One thing we had no idea about when we opened was how much employees cost,” said Tim.
“When it’s all said and done, though, when they’re worth it they’re worth it,” said Keegan. “Besides, you can’t show up and not have them be here. Everything here is truly made from scratch.”
It is shortly after Columbus Day, when their summer season has drawn to a close, that the beer fund at Liquids and Solids comes into play. That’s when the hardwerkin staff takes some time off and leaves the country.
Bye, bye blackbird for a long, long weekend.
For all of you that bought a beer for the kitchen this summer, they totaled $887.00 in earnings and will be in Montreal celebrating soon thinking of you all that made it possible knowing they be appreciated for the daily grind! Thanks. Liquids and Solids, Facebook, October 13, 2014.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.