As resumes started pouring in, the exhausted chef/owner became more agitated. Her rants grew along with the pile of unqualified or unsuitable applicants. Still crazy busy with holiday parties and family gatherings, we were almost looking forward to the slow days January and February would bring.
The entire overworked staff was on eggshells every time a candidate left her office. Desperately needing help in the kitchen, servers were at a loss to provide the above-and-beyond service we had become known for. Lemon wedges weren’t readily available. Food allergy special orders backed up the line for unacceptable periods of time, and after a full week, we were no closer to a fully staffed back of the house.
“This is exactly why I didn’t want to advertise for help beyond word-of-mouth,” my boss spat at me. “Now, the whole city knows we have turnover and every disgruntled dishwasher who wants to be Eric Ribert is showing up at the doorstep. Our customers will be looking for inconsistencies and we haven’t been reviewed in five years.
“I want you to start screening kitchen people, I can’t handle it.”
Before I could utter a peep of protest, she handed me a “Yes” and “Maybe” stack of resumes and applications.
After giving away my bar shift for the rest of the afternoon, I began making phone calls and reviewed the 10 things I knew to be true about restaurant interviewing and hiring:
1 — Someone can look great on paper, but still be psycho.
2 — Poor penmanship and spelling have little to do with talent and temperament.
3 — Hygiene matters more than personal appearance in a closed kitchen.
4 — If someone is fibbing about experience, or their reason for leaving a job, they’ll get caught. This town (especially back then) is too small to pull that off. On the flip side, most people use friends as references.
5 — Easygoing, but not lackadaisical, is key. New hires need to learn new ropes.
6 — Be clear about shift needs. Even the best candidate is no good if availability doesn’t mutually gel.
7 — Don’t hire anybody who shows up during peak service periods to ask for an application or drop off a resume. They should know better.
8 — Be clear about wages and benefits. A free meal and a shift drink is still considered full benefits in most small restaurants.
9 — If someone has a job, but says they don’t need to give notice, pass them by.
10 — Ask the candidate to ask questions. Will their back-and-forth communication style fit in with the rest of the kitchen?
Over the next three days, I met with nine applicants. Since we needed two strong, well-rounded people, I arranged for my boss to meet with four of them for 15 minutes each. Even that part wasn’t easy.
In the process, a few excellent candidates fell by the wayside due to communication mishaps, one took another job, and one confessed she was moving in three months. But the final four were ready to meet the big cheese during closed hours the following Sunday evening. All showed, even though there was a parking ban due to the weather.
When Monday morning rolled around, I was flabbergasted to learn she had hired not two, but three of the candidates. All were on a trial basis (her idea) and she would oversee the training herself. More CYA then a competition, two out of three successful hires would be good odds.
Call it a Christmas miracle, but my usually budget-frantic boss was thinking ahead to summer, an expanded menu, and taking off an extra half-day a week. She began to view the public awareness of our “dirty laundry” as an opportunity, and morale picked up. Six months later, all three new hires were still there.
That, and we had a summer outing to celebrate an excellent write-up in a magazine From Away.
To my hospitality brothers and sisters: May your tips be heavy and your trays light. Let’s be grateful for the customers who dine with us and the house that allows us to do the jobs we love.
To my readers: Thanks for a year of support, comments and suggestions, no matter how nutty.
To my bosses: Thanks for allowing me to take two passions and turn them into a dream job.
To my daughters: Thanks, just thanks.
Merry Christmas and happiest of holidays to all.
Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to email@example.com, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.