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.

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