An adventure in restaurant hiring: part one

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A couple of job-lifetimes ago, when there were more unemployed line cooks than restaurants hiring, I worked with a chef/owner who refused to advertise for help. This was especially true in the case of lead positions like sous chef or head bartender.

“It looks bad, as if things aren’t running smoothly,” she said. “Having longtime employees gives the impression that this is a desirable place to work and they make a good living. If there’s front-of-the-house turnover with a full-time server or bartender, we look unstable to the customer.”

As was her style, she didn’t ask herself (or anyone else, especially the person in question) why they were leaving. Once notice was given, even with the offer to stick around and help train their own replacement, she dismissed them from her mind altogether. One guy, with over a decade of dedicated employment, was barely given a handshake goodbye.

“Nobody is indispensable and I don’t want to look desperate,” she said, when I wanted to put a classy-looking help wanted ad in a hipster newspaper.

To a small degree, I understood her point. Touting the gaping holes on our schedule as a “culinary career breakthrough opportunity for experienced professionals” would have appealed to the egos of disgruntled employees up the street, and fueled the then-new Portland game of musical chef’s coats. There was a rumbling in the infrastructure of some of the oldest and most respected anchor restaurants, few of whom ever had to advertise for help, or heaven forbid, business.

“But, we might get the right fit,” I almost begged. “On one hand you’re complaining about overtime and on the other you want a new, talented person to just magically appear. Word of mouth isn’t working and we have two people, myself included, who haven’t had a day off in almost three weeks.”

As three more weeks went by (my daughters saw my picture on a chocolate milk carton), we were no closer to hiring the now-three new people we needed.

“Things are starting to get out of hand,” she finally admitted after an overtired line cook had an accident on a greasy floor the night prior. “People are making mistakes so, go ahead and place the advertisement. But, make sure it isn’t too expensive. There’s no budget for advertising because we’ve never needed it.” Refraining from asking how much she paid in overtime over the past two months, I placed the ad immediately.

Next Week: An Adventure in Restaurant Hiring, Part Two

Peas & Q’s: My wife and I read your column about the high school sports team paying separate checks at a group breakfast (‘There’s no I in “team” … but there’s an e-a-t,’ Nov. 17), and have only one thing to say. Shame on you!

My son has come home from such gatherings after being stuck with other people’s tabs more than once. In the real world, he’ll need his own receipts for business reimbursement or taxes. It shouldn’t be a hardship to provide good service. This is the first time I’ve ever disagreed with you, but you’re way off on this one.

Tom R., Falmouth

Tom, Thanks for reading and for your support. However, I unequivocally will not back down on this issue. Let’s not forget I have two daughters who learned to navigate the restaurant bill-sharing and tipping process during their own formative, dining-out years in high school.

As I’ve stated many times, most restaurants have a clear-cut policy about separate checks and automatic gratuities for parties with more than six people. These guidelines are implemented to streamline and ensure good service for all. They also guarantee a base gratuity.

Having been rightfully accused of coddling my daughters when they needed to learn uncomfortable and unfamiliar life skills, I recommend you do the same. In addition to allowing the server to optimally do her already-difficult job, one-size-check-fits-all is an excellent opportunity for group problem solving, communication and teamwork.

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, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.