The Great Restaurant Resignation

Where have all the cooks and servers gone?

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko via Pexels
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko via Pexels

Over two years since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Great Resignation shows no signs of slowing down. Almost 4.3 million people quit their jobs in January, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and nearly 48 million did so in 2021. There are currently 11.3 million job openings around the country.

The problem has been more acute in the hospitality industry. Restaurant Business Online reports that restaurant employment has declined 8% since the pandemic started, with over one million workers shedding their jobs. Of course, some of that attrition wasn’t voluntary: data indicates that some 80,000 restaurants, or nearly 10% of the national total, have closed their doors.

Before drawing any conclusions, it’s fair to say that restaurant employment is far more transitory and mobile than other industries. When workers leave their jobs, it’s not unusual to quit or be fired on the spot; even those that give their employer one week’s notice sometimes never get the chance to serve it out. Even so, it’s clear that a sea change is occurring. Restaurateurs are complaining that they can’t get help, which affects the number of hours they can stay open, which in turn impacts their bottom line.

Photo by Elle Hughes via Pexels
Photo by Elle Hughes via Pexels

Money doesn’t appear to be the issue. A local restaurant owner recently told me he was trying to find a general manager and was willing to pay $90,000 plus benefits, but he had no takers. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck revealed in an interview that he was having trouble finding employees at his Spago group of restaurants—even though servers at Spago easily make between $120,000 and $150,000 annually.

According to Puck, many restaurant workers have simply changed their lifestyle. When restaurants closed during the pandemic and employees found other jobs, they discovered that they didn’t have to work on weekends or holidays, and that their workday ended before midnight. On top of that, they no longer ran the risk of catching Covid from customers carrying the virus. Normal life suddenly seemed more attractive, even if they had to pay taxes on all of their income.

Photo by Amina Filkins via Pexels
Photo by Amina Filkins via Pexels

Much has been written about the differences between European and American restaurant culture. The most common observation is that restaurant work in Europe is an honored trade and respected skill, whereas many Americans regard it as a temporary source of cash. Even so, the coronavirus wreaked havoc on hospitality on both sides of the Atlantic. When things finally return to “normal” (whatever that may be), there’s likely to be an even stronger distinction between career tradespeople and sporadic help. For that to happen here, though, some things will have to change: restaurateurs will have to treat employees better and pay them more, offering a career rather than a job; employees will need to regard restaurant work with a sense of pride, dedication and commitment; customers will have to adjust to paying more for the dining experience. Good luck with all that.

Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants, and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book, and audio book formats. Has America’s greatest chef cut a deal with Satan for fame and fortune?

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