Staffing New Restaurants

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - January 17, 2007
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Can somebody please do the math? Unemployment is running around 2 percent, and on almost every restaurant and bar door there are “help wanted” signs. Dishwashers are trading their grease-stained aprons for waiter jobs because demand for service in restaurants is so high, and The Waikiki Beach Walk Project, with its need for at least 1,000 new employees, is nearing completion.

Where are these new servers coming from, and what kind of service can customers expect at top-dollar restaurants in Waikiki and beyond? There are rumblings throughout the food and beverage industry as the same question is asked over and over, “where are they going to get the staff?”

The way I see it, there are two scenarios about to play out.

1) Top servers are lured to Waikiki by higher-paying jobs, leaving other restaurants with less experienced staff.

2) Waikiki restaurants are forced to hire anyone who turns up with a hint of a job history, and the service at chain restaurants immediately gains a poor reputation.

New openings in the first half of this year alone will create about 2,000 new restaurant seats, and the already stretched Honolulu dining pie can only dish out smaller slices. Bill Tobin, managing partner of successful Waikiki restaurant Tiki’s Grill and Bar, is right in the middle of the action.

“It is undoubtedly more difficult to hire staff this time around,” he says. “When we opened Tiki’s four years ago, we had more than 1,000 applications. Now we’re actively recruiting, using online services, word-of-mouth and we’re actually pumping up hiring staff at Tiki’s in anticipation of transferring people to our Holokai Grill.”

At Ruth’s Chris Steak House, director of operations For Desert Island Restaurants, Paul Ah Cook, agrees. “We’ve had about 120 applications, many from veterans in the industry who are looking to move,” he says. “But it’s not easy.” Ah Cook, who has years of experience opening new restaurants (he most recently opened Romano’s Macaroni Grill), says he’s confident that a high caliber of server will open the new steakhouse.

“At Macaroni Grill, we literally were taking people who had never worked in the industry before and training them,” he says. “At Ruth’s Chris, we have applicants with excellent resumes.”

So as Roy’s, Holokai Grill, The Yard House, Wolfgang Puck, The Beach House, Nobu and a celebrity chef restaurant in Trump Tower (to name but a few) prepare to open, all eyes are on Waikiki.

“The question on everyone’s mind is definitely about where the staff will come from,” says Don Murphy, owner of Murphy’s Bar and Grill. “Most of us are struggling right now to hire good people.”

So does it mean that Waikiki is set to become a dining paradise, leaving the rest of us suffering sub-standard service from bartenders more used to opening bottles of Joy than Jack Daniels?

“We are seeing people with no experience applying for top jobs,” says one restaurateur who wishes to remain anonymous. “Line cooks and busboys can move up the chain real fast right now.”

And great service or not, competition among restaurants is going to get a whole lot fiercer - especially if locals don’t make the trek to Waikiki.

“Slices of the restaurant pie will go to great food, great service and great locations,” says Bill Tobin. “The likely sufferers will be those restaurants off the beaten path or on the outskirts of Waikiki.”

Paul Ah Cook agrees. “The restaurants that will be successful will be the ones treating the tourists as if they live here, and attracting their share of the local market. Ruth’s Chris will be serving customers as if we’re going to see the same people every week - not just once while they’re on vacation.”

But the news is not all bad. Some restaurant staff will not be moved - at any price. At Roy’s and Ruth’s Chris for example, servers and bartenders given the choice to move to Waikiki have almost exclusively chosen to stay where they are.

“We’re not leaving our customers behind,” said Brian Blair, veteran bartender at Ruth’s Chris in Restaurant Row. “To a lot of us, our jobs are all about the people we’ve built relationships with.”

And no one is going anywhere at Murphy’s either. “You work a long time and try to build relationships with your staff where they don’t want to leave,” says Murph.

Tobin agrees. “It is tough when the big guys and hotels can afford to pay more, so we compete by creating a work environment that people like, and are proud of.”

So for now, at least, enjoy the comfort of your favorite wait staff and bartenders. It could be that no one’s going anywhere, but six weeks from now more than 1,000 new hires in Waikiki will be polishing glasses and waiting expectantly at tables for big tips. Here’s hoping they can all maintain a standard of service worth talking about. The last thing we need to create is a group of restaurants with a reputation for high prices and poor service.

Happy eating.

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