Help Wanted

What makes DC a great food city is not just the food, but the media that cover it. We are lucky to have a collection of passionate and hardworking journalists in DC who do more than just review the new poke place. Or the new poke place. Or the new…For real, what the Hell with poke?

To understand this business, you must look past the fabricated drama of openings and closings and what pop-up theme bar has the longest line. This is a business with many determiners of success existing behind the scenes. Recently, one of DC’s best food writers, Jessica Sidman at the Washingtonian, drew attention to what might be the single most critical factor in the success or failure of restaurants over the next couple of years.

Staff.

This piece draws attention to what is being considered a crisis. I have written that talk of a bubble is hyperbole, but this issue is very real, and while I don’t think it will deflate the industry, I do think that many restaurants that might otherwise have the pieces in place to be successful, will not be.

As the article points out, every operator in town is acutely aware of this issue, and it is not a new one. However, what makes this piece helpful is that it singles out the Wharf as particularly exacerbating the problem.

No doubt, the Wharf will be a good thing for the city. Growing up here, the SW waterfront was good for buying seafood, and that was it. It is certainly underutilized, and I look forward to seeing it succeed. I also look forward to someone inviting me to see the Foo Fighters opening night at The Anthem. Hello? Anyone? Sigh.

As the excitement builds towards the opening of the Wharf, residents are excited, and no thought at all is given to how many customers it will take to support these businesses. That should be a concern. There are simply too many places for everyone to do well. And with the prices these places have paid, they will need every customer they can get.

Reports are already out that several places will not meet the required opening deadline. That is expected but nonetheless troubling.

But again, that is not the real worry. Sidman’s article states that the Wharf will need nearly 900 employees just for the restaurants. And she rightly theorizes that those employees will certainly come from other restaurants. That of course is nothing new—staff routinely hop to the newer spots.

But there is still a gap.

There simply aren’t enough competent and well-trained employees to staff all these new places and all the other places that are continuously opening around the city.

The solution to that problem is complicated, but workforce development is key. There are solid jobs at every skill level to be had in restaurants, and there is substantial opportunity for growth. Whether it is local non-profits focusing on culinary specific job training (plug for my non-profit, La Cocina VA), or broader initiatives by local and national government, more needs to be done.

There is always talk about America needing better jobs, but that is not true here in DC. The jobs are here–we need the people to work them.

And to be clear, I do believe that our industry needs to do more. The antiquated ways in which we treat staff need to continue to evolve. The idea that long hours, low pay and tough conditions are part of the job is ridiculous.

If we want to attract the best and the brightest—and occasionally just get a warm body in there to fill a shift—then we need to do more ourselves to attract that talent.

I have had a lot of conversations of late with smart people in the business who are trying to figure this out. We are way past realizing there is a problem, but we also don’t have all the solutions in hand. Articles like this help to make the broader community aware of the crisis, and perhaps allow for outside solutions we haven’t thought of. I think that would be welcome.

Real Change. Right Here.

For many years, I was a Big Brother. Of course, I have been a big brother for all but those first two blissful years of my life (sorry, Ben), but the capitalized version is different. Big Brothers Big Sisters is a one-to-one mentoring organization that provides youth with adult role models—someone to provide guidance and positive examples. It is a great organization, and the reason I did it was that I wanted to be a part of change I could see right in front of me, right here where I live. There is no anonymity in mentoring, and the change you see is immediate and personal.

I have been looking for some time for an organization that can have the same effect, but on the broader community I live in and the industry I work in. I found it in La Cocina VA. After hearing a piece on NPR about the organization, I called the same day. I joined the Board of Directors weeks later.

La Cocina VA is primarily a culinary training center that provides people—primarily recent immigrants—with the skills and certification they need to work in the hospitality industry. “Job creators” are useless if there is no one with training to fill the jobs. La Cocina provides our industry with qualified and eager workers—something that we desperately need.

More than that, however, La Cocina VA offers hope to our most vulnerable community in the DC area. Language training, conflict resolution, counseling and food assistance are all a part of the program. La Cocina VA wants our members to become impactful members of the community beyond their job, and they understand that the ripple effect of that can be far and wide.

I am thrilled to have been asked to serve, and I hope that I can offer help in taking the organization to the next level. We are currently planning an ambitious new center in South Arlington. There will be a café and catering company to serve the Arlington residential and business community as well as an expanded training center and a culinary incubator to help members learn about the possibilities of entrepreneurship—yeah, I am all over that last part…

From the tiny basement of a church two blocks from where I grew up in Arlington, in the next couple years La Cocina VA will grow into a powerful force for change right here where we live. Skeptical? Look no further than the Founder and CEO, Paty Funegra. She quit her job to start La Cocina VA, and in its short existence, they’ve been visited by Senators and Congressmen, and she has been invited to the White House to talk about the mission.

I hope you’ll keep an eye on our progress and come visit us when we open the center—coffee is on me. Wait, foget that. Pay up—it’s for a good cause.

City Paper Feature Article