Strategies for recruiting cooks

Operators get creative with recruitment strategies in the face of a staffing shortage.

talent compass

Joaquin Suarez passes out his business cards every opportunity he gets. When he and his wife go out for dinner, he ducks back to the kitchen to talk with the cooks. He visits local Philadelphia culinary schools to check out their classes. And still, recruiting is a challenge for the corporate director of dining services at Wesley Enhanced Living senior communities. “We are feeling the strain for good talent,” Suarez says.

In recent months, word of a cook shortage in the restaurant industry has grown louder. But all segments of foodservice are facing a shortage; nearly half of respondents in FoodService Director’s 2015 B&I Census reported that recruiting, training and retaining staff are issues in their operations.

“I think it’s pervasive,” says Christopher Koetke, vice president of the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts in Chicago. As Koetke explains it, the entire industry—commercial and noncommercial—is growing at a rate far outpacing the available labor pool. Culinary schools like his are graduating students at high rates—Kendall career statistics show that 100 percent of its December 2014 culinary arts graduates were employed within six months—but the school still can’t keep up with demand.

There’s no easy solution, but Koetke advises operators to look at the situation as a simple supply-and-demand equation. With cooks in demand now, potential employers must make their jobs enticing. The most obvious step is offering higher salaries, but that’s not the only tool employers have at their disposal. “Money is a motivator, but only to a certain point,” Koetke says.

Suarez agrees. Constrained by the relatively inflexible budgets of a senior living community—he can’t just raise the rent when he wants to hire a new cook—Suarez recently faced a $10,000 salary gap with a potential employee he wanted to poach from a local restaurant. To bridge that difference, Suarez outlined the strengths of his segment: a benefits package, work-life balance with predictable weekday hours and stability.

That strategy might not work with every potential employee. Suarez notes that younger workers tend to be less worried about benefits and work-life balance than their counterparts with families to consider. But for experienced cooks—tired of a restaurant life with long hours, plus weekends and holidays—the argument can be enough.

Brookdale, a national 570-unit senior living company, has developed programs specifically to cope with the cook shortage. According to Joska J.W. Hajdu, senior vice president of dining services, these initiatives include sending experienced employees to help out in a community with staffing shortages. Brookdale also has developed a Culinary Arts Institute training program as well as a management-training program to help current employees develop their skills to perform additional tasks.

Leaving restaurants for noncommercial life doesn’t mean asking cooks to give up the creative work they love. Suarez tells job hunters that kitchens like his are shifting toward the restaurant model in terms of quality and menu innovation, especially as baby boomers transition into senior living. Old-school, cafeteria-style dining has transformed into full-scale dining rooms with seasonal dishes such as lamb and barley stew. Says Suarez, “You get to do the same kind of cooking, and you’re home with your family at a decent hour.”

Hajdu says culinary associates at Brookdale plan their own menus, resulting in a recipe database that’s as enormous as it is regionally and ethnically diverse. “We are even considering launching our very own food trucks in 2016,” Hajdu says, explaining that it’s important to stay current with trends without sacrificing creativity.

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