Gotten Bad Service Lately? Here's Why

Seattle’s restaurant industry has grown exponentially in recent years. Its workforce isn’t keeping up.

It’s a now-familiar sight in Seattle—a new restaurant opening. Often it’s accompanied by excitement, anticipation, and hordes of eager diners ready to talk, Instagram, and Yelp all about it. Diners and restaurateurs alike debate what the new place will mean for Seattle’s food scene: Will it offer something new? Will it cut into our business? But another question is rarely asked outside kitchens and back offices, almost never mentioned in fawning and damning press alike: Whom are we going to lose?

As Seattle’s food scene has grown, so has the demand for staff. According to the Bureau of Labor, the Seattle/Tacoma/Bellevue area has added more than 24,000 leisure and hospitality jobs in the past decade, 10,000 of those in the past three years.

The restaurant labor pool is understandably hard to quantify. It includes many part-time workers, students, people who hold down multiple jobs, and everyone else at the fringes of the industry. Workers make their way into the industry from every conceivable background: In my time waiting tables and bartending, I’ve worked with high-school dropouts and at least one server with a Ph.D.

Yet waiting tables, tending bar, or cooking for a living is not something that just anyone can do. Granted, it’s not rocket science, but it does require certain physical and mental skills: quick and efficient movement, grace and dexterity, the ability to stand on one’s feet for many hours at a time and remember myriad complex orders, cooking times, and drink recipes. It takes time to learn those skills, yet the growing demand for restaurant labor means that fewer and fewer actually have them.

“I have noticed the change of labor attitudes and work ethics over the past few years,” says Sharon Fillingim, owner of Queen Anne’s Grub. “I would have to say 97 percent of my stress level is to find trustworthy, reliable, and dedicated staff.”

“Back of the house is definitely a big challenge,” she adds. “With all the new restaurants opening up, there are more chances to jump ship. There are not a lot of restaurant workers, both front and back of the house, that are willing to work as hard as years before.”

The demand for labor is perceptible throughout the industry. Linda Chauncey, associate dean at the Seattle Culinary Academy, has certainly seen a difference. “Enrollment has been really great for the last two years, but we’ve seen softening in enrollment the last two quarters,” she says. “Students are taking jobs in their third quarter, when they feel hireable.” The increased demand for cooks, even those who might not have completed culinary school, is one cause, but, Chauncey adds, “The reputation of the program affords students great hireability.”

While culinary schools continue to train prospective cooks, no such formal education exists for the dishwashers, servers, bartenders, bussers, hosts, and assorted others who staff the hundreds of restaurants in Seattle. As a result, training occurs on the job. Everything is learned on the clock: how to clear a table, the proper way to speak with a guest about a reservation, how to communicate your proximity to another cook who has a sharp knife in one hand and a hot pan in the other.

It used to be that a restaurant would invest time and effort into training a relatively inexperienced employee, and would then be able to promote that worker over time—from prep cook to line cook to sous chef, or from busser to server to bartender. Of course there’s always been movement and attrition, but the pace was generally slow enough to allow restaurants, especially the more prestigious ones, to be discerning and diligent in hiring and promoting.

To retain staff in an expanding industry, some restaurants recently have had to go a bit further to keep talented and valuable employees happy. Joe Fugere, founder of Tutta Bella Pizza, describes it thus: “On average, turnover has been reduced in the past five years, but I attribute this more to our leadership strength than anything related to the job market.” That said, Fugere credits employee retention to “offering benefits like free meals, paid time off, health insurance, and an annual cultural-immersion trip to Italy for staff.”

Even with attempts to keep turnover down, Fillingim confirms what’s become an open secret in the restaurant industry: Service standards in Seattle are inconsistent at best. “I’ve noticed the level and quality of service declining, especially in the busier and trendier restaurants—not because they are busy, but because they know they will still be busy with or without your patronage.”

The sort of rigorous on-the-job training that might have taken place a decade or so ago has fallen by the wayside in the rush to fill a seemingly endless void of service jobs. Names and job titles on resumes no longer carry the weight they used to; instead of a crush of experience-laden resumes, a restaurant looking to hire often gets inundated with neophytes—and quite possibly someone they’ve already fired. As one restaurant owner recently told me, “We used to get to pick and choose who we hired. Now we’re just looking for someone who can fill the gaps in our schedule.”

All this turnover and expansion affects the diner’s experience as well. While of course poor service and mediocre food were part of the Seattle restaurant scene long before the current growth spurt, it’s not hard to see that the influx of thousands of relatively untrained workers can lead to some less-than-stellar experiences: tables ignored, food over- or undercooked, poorly made cocktails, and, worst of all, people who have no place working in a restaurant.

Quality cooking and service requires a certain mind-set: a willingness to dive into the fray of a busy Saturday night; the ability to put a guest’s priorities first; an interest in working strange days and late hours, often for a relatively modest income. The Seattle restaurant industry is rapidly learning that while there might be an ever-growing interest in new dining experiences, there’s a finite pool of people who fit the bill to facilitate them.

Zach Geballe is a bartender and server at Dahlia Lounge. He has worked in the industry for a decade as a busser, server, and bartender.

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