A Former Chef Explains The 5 Reasons Why The Foodservice Industry Is In Decline

Why are people sick of working in kitchens?

If you've been on social media recently or have gone out to eat, you may have come across a sign on the door that reads something like:

Please be patient as we are short-staffed. No one wants to work anymore. If you would like to apply, please ask one of our servers for an application.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, an estimated 20.6 million people lost their jobs in the U.S. according to the Center for Disease Control.

Restaurant workers were hit particularly hard as a 20% drop in employment ensued as a result of the Coronavirus shutdown. Additionally, after a spike in employment at the height of summer, the industry again regressed in December as nearly 400,000 restaurant employees lost their jobs.

Take a word from a Chef

I have been working in and out of various restaurants for a better part of a decade. This experience includes being a manager and a Chef in multiple locations.

I have taken pride in my work and culinary arts is one of my passions. Cooking has always been one of my strongest skills which have led me to leadership roles within the kitchen. 

Becoming a manager, unfortunately, doesn't take much effort in some restaurants. Being a consistent and competent employee for a few months can land you the role since turnover runs rampant in the foodservice industry.

There's plenty of reason for the high amount of turnover. Here are 5 reasons why the food service industry is in decline.

1. The foodservice industry is tumultuous 

If you have never worked in a restaurant, chances are that you may not know the horrors of running a kitchen. A busy kitchen (especially in a poorly run restaurant) is a nightmare.

Tickets get mismatch or lost, food comes out late, the Cook breezed over the ticket order for any modifications, food may be sent to the wrong table; this list can go on and on.

This conjures chaos in the kitchen as Cooks and Chefs become flustered by a heavy flow of tickets with servers constantly asking where their food is. 

A busy night run poorly can cause the entire staff to become frustrated. Fortunately for the Cooks and Chefs, they are able to express this frustration as most kitchens are closed kitchens.

For servers, it's a double-edged sword. They must organize the chaos of the kitchen to ensure they push food out in a timely manner to keep the customers from becoming disgruntled.

The other edge of the sword is just as sharp. Servers may have to deal with rude and entitled customers which can make their shift a living hell. Some customers may show to be needy as they will request something menial from a server in the midst of a rush.

They must do all of this with a smile on their face.

2. Substance abuse is very common in kitchens

According to the American Addiction Center, 1 in 5 restaurant workers claims to have used drugs or alcohol at least once or twice a week outside of work while a staggering 12.6% of restaurant works claim to have been under the influence of drugs and alcohol during their shift at least once.

Substance Abuse Chart
Image Source: American Addiction Centers

In my very first shift as a Cook, I remember going through the ropes with the trainer. I was scheduled to close with him and, by that time, the manager was long gone.

As soon as the manager left for the night, the Cook training me in offered me some cocaine.

Right on the food line.

This was the first experience with substance abuse in the foodservice industry and I wasn't even fully finished with my shift.

Weed is quite common with restaurant workers, mainly Cooks, as a few hits can ease the mind after an overwhelming rush.

Alcohol has a numbing effect on restaurant workers after a busy shift. This gives a chance for the workers to build comradery and to blow off steam. Some restaurants offer a free drink for an employee who finished their shift; fittingly called a "shifty." 

While this all seems okay in some instances, there is a darker side to this tradition.

Some restaurant workers abuse alcohol during their shifts. This creates a huge problem at work since alcohol stunts motor function and the ability to think critically, ultimately resulting in a frenzied and dangerous work environment.

Before I left my last job as a Chef, I was in charge of training the Cook with my duties as the restaurant was still in need to fill my role. The last two weeks of my employment there, he took the reigns with everything from ordering to scheduling.

Soon after that, a huge problem came bubbling to the surface.

He was alcoholic drinking at work regularly. None of us realized this until he was in charge. 

On my last shift, I open up the restaurant which required me to be there at 5:45 A.M. I was supposed to be out by 3 P.M.

Little did I know, that wasn't the case.

I looked at the schedule and called the employee who was supposed to be in. He explained he started his other job two weeks prior and works there during this shift, which he explained to the new manager multiple times.

I called the new manager and explained it was his responsibility to cover the shift which he replied, "I can't come in, I'm drunk."

Long story short, I ended up working till 11 P.M. I worked 17 hours on my last day, which made me even more disgruntled and happy to leave.

He also ended up being fired a short time later for being drunk at work too much.

3. Servers receive unfair wages

Serving for Low Wages
Image source: Adobe Stock

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the federal minimum cash wage is $2.13/hr. This applies to most servers as they are expected to make up the rest of the wages in tips.

And they do, albeit some of the time.

As I always say, predicting how busy a restaurant will be is like predicting the weather in Minnesota: 

You can take a good guess, but that isn't going to get you far.

Typically slow days like Monday or Tuesday can swiftly turn into a full house in a matter of minutes. 

These typical slow days usually present a bare-bones staff ready to meet the needs of a couple of regulars or a slight trickle throughout the night. When these slow nights prove to be just the opposite, this bare-bones team needs to scramble in order to appease the large crowd that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

No matter how well a kitchen staff is run, these kinds of nights will force strain. An understaffed restaurant on a sudden busy night is subject to:

  • Long Ticket Times
  • Food going out to the wrong tables
  • The kitchen runs out of key prep ingredients which causes certain menu items to be unavailable
  • Servers taking more tables than they can handle

All these factors boil down to one outcome; the patrons may not like the experience and leave pennies instead of dollars. With no fault of their own, a server's wages can take a hit even when random busy "money-making" days occur.

The income of a server is truly unpredictable. You could make $200+ one night, and 5 bucks for the next week. 

4. Cooks can also struggle with lower wages

Restaurant Cooking
Image Source: Adobe Stock

I have never experienced more turnover than I have in the foodservice industry. Cooks will leave the job as fast as they were hired, which is almost always on the spot.

There are factors that explain the reason why turnover is so high in regards to cooks. One of those reasons is that a lot of cooks' personal lives seem to emulate a night in a busy kitchen run poorly--tumultuous.

As I alluded to earlier, the restaurant industry has the highest amount of substance abuse than any other industry. Some cooks are inconsistent or irresponsible. Sometimes they'll show up an hour late or not at all; other times they'll come to work under the influence and weigh down the kitchen during a rush.

These inconsistencies, however, can be attributed to the harsh work environment in the kitchen. 

The life of a cook sums up as:

  • Odd hours at work

Sometimes cooks get off work late at night and have to be there bright and early the next day. You could start in the afternoon or late at night and go into the wee hours of the morning. On top of that, you may have only one day off in between two separate stints of six days in a row. 

  • You'll probably work on the few days off that you have

If your kitchen is short-staffed, which most of the time it is, you will probably get a call on the rare day off you have and be asked to cover a shift. Of course, you can say "no" and you should when you need downtime. Decline enough offers for extra hours, though, and no one will want to cover a shift when you're in a pickle.

  • Pay is not great either

The median wage for a cook is $12/hr The higher-end for cooks can reach up to $17/hr, but that's only in some cases. The median wage for a Chef is only slightly over $15/hr. 

When I was working as a Sous Chef, my Head Chef had a mental breakdown and was suddenly gone. My hourly wage was $14.50/hr. When it was evident our Chef wasn't coming back, the owner decided to promote me to the position. 

He started the negotiations at $15/hr and I got it up to $15.25/hr. Yes, by year, that raise attributes to an extra $3,000 in my pocket. 

It wasn't worth the money, however, as my responsibilities seemed endless. I worked 55 hours a week for 4-5 months straight only to have Thursdays off if I was lucky. The only way to make a decent living in a kitchen is to practically live there, and that's not healthy.

5. Tipping culture in American is a farce

First and foremost, I want to note that I am very much for tipping. When I go out to eat, I never leave anything less than 15%. Sometimes I will even tip as much as 50% on a bill. 

Of course, I am sympathetic to the industry, but there are many positives to tipping generously:

  • If you frequent that restaurant, the wait staff will favor you and your report with them is friendly 
  • A good tip can show appreciation, even past monetary aspect
  • The servers will make sure the Cook has your meal just right as they even appreciate good customers
  • It could help a server lighten the blow of a busy night with poor tips

With that being said, the tipping culture in America is a complete scam.

This culture of tipping is deeply embedded in racism and slavery as it dates back before that Civil War.

According to a Washington Post article, industrialization forced more people to move from rural areas to urban ones looking to find work in factories. Newly freed slaves had a second massive step ahead of them to make it in America, it was basically just a second step in slavery.

A lot of these factory workers only had enough time to run to the nearest food store and grab a quick bit, which they would just throw some pennies down on the counter and run.

What was left of the pennies was essentially the newly freed slaves' wage. Restaurants really employed people for no money. Their pay was what they could scrounge up over the remaining pennies patrons left.

Even after almost 150 years later, the practice is almost still intact.

Restaurant owners claim to give such low wages to keep food prices down. The servers are supposed to make up for the low wages with the tips they receive from customers.

The only person who benefits from low server wages is the owners as the patron is expected to pay the wage of the server, still making a dining experience just as costly if the menu items had their true prices.

Patrons aren't forced to tip, so the person lowest on the totem pole is the server. Even if they bust their butt and deliver a great dining experience to their customers, there is still a chance of getting stiffed. 

The customer saves money, the owners collect the profits, and the server is sent home with leftovers and a couple of bucks to last until the next shift.

If Restaurant owners put aside their greed and paid a decent wage to their servers while upping the prices on their menus, the dining experience will come out at a similar cost, just with less math at the end. 

Giving Life to a dying industry

There's plenty of reasons why restaurant owners are struggling to fill the empty spaces between their kitchen and dining areas. Flattops are being left unattended and the dining room has fewer of those hospitable superheroes that are servers.

People who work in kitchens are unhappy, they have been for a while. The sad part is it took a pandemic for them to finally speak out. For too long restaurant owners have pinched every penny in order to reap as many profits as they can squeeze.

The restaurant employees are not satisfied with handouts, they want a wage that accurately reflects the responsibility and the stresses of working in the harsh world of the foodservice industry.

Diner Picture
Me Cooking with a Server (Circa 2018)
Paul is passionate about mastering the craft of writing. Adaptive and charismatic over pen and paper, no subject is out of the question.

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