(First published in the March 14, 2019 issue of City Pages)
Chef Travis Teska leads a tech program that addresses the shortage of food industry workers
Chef Travis Teska: New students find a few things surprising about the food service industry when they enter the program. For one, cooking is a small part of being a chef. “Not every kitchen needs a head chef, but every one of them needs a kitchen manager,” he says.
When health issues left Ronald Kubetz unable to work as a heavy equipment operator, he started searching for a new line of work. He’d spent 25 years operating equipment on construction sites, but three neck fusions and a back surgery made that line of work impossible.
Living in Wausau, he planned to move to the Fox Valley to find a school program to pursue his passion of cooking. Then he realized there was a program right in his backyard at Northcentral Technical College. He signed up immediately, and is now in his second semester in NTC’s Culinary Arts program.
Kubetz was among about a dozen students on a recent Thursday afternoon chopping vegetables and preparing stock for their latest assignment: to make their own soup from scratch. As the students prepped around the stainless steel counters, the sounds of knives chopping, ovens doors shutting, and students shouting directions to each other fill the room in the backside of the sprawling NTC building.
The new program, launched in fall 2016, is important. There’s a serious shortage of food industry workers in Wisconsin, nationwide, and especially around Wausau. It’s not just about wait staff. The shortage includes people like chefs, managers, and kitchen crew.
Just in the past month or so the area has seen the closing of Bletsoe’s Cheese, Perkins Family Restaurant and two locations of Briq’s Ice Cream. A restaurant in Stevens Point specializing in pizzas named after characters from The Big Lebowski faced similar problems a year ago. The owner told City Pages he couldn’t find enough staff to keep up with business. A few months later the place was closed.
And anyone following the Wendy’s walkout last year saw how the inability to attract and retain staff poses not only serious problems for business owners, but also strains employees they do have. The fast food location in Weston has since closed early several times for lack of staff.
The food service industry is hardly unique. Nearly all jobs, from software coding to cleaning, are harder to fill. Ask just about any employer and they’ll say that their biggest problem these days is not finding enough workers.
Food service (and retail) has the added challenge of being on the bottom of the upward mobility ladder. As the workforce population dwindles compared to demand, employers of higher-paying professions are more flexible about who they hire. This creates opportunities for those in lower-paying jobs; but there’s no one for the food service industry to draw from.
Automation has already started to fill some of those roles: Most retail stores have at least a few self-checkout lanes and some chain restaurants are experimenting with touchscreen menu ordering and even robot burger flippers. Expect that to increase, economists say.
In the meantime, finding food service workers is expected to become increasingly difficult in the coming years.
Several students in the culinary arts program say they aspire to start their own restaurants. For some, they already worked in the food service industry but want to work their way up to higher paying positions. MattieAnna Sechser says she has been in the industry for 16 years but signed up for the culinary arts program to move up the industry ladder. “I got sick of the low paying jobs.”
A figure on NTC’s Culinary Arts program’s website is telling, if not a little misleading. It says the national average starting salary is $23,748. But averages don’t always accurately measure realistic wages because very low paying jobs in the field skew the results.
According to glassdoor.com, the mean salary for a head chef is about $50,000; other various titles such as Sous Chef and Chef de Cuisine are within a few thousand of that. It’s those types of jobs graduates of a culinary program are more likely to aspire to.
But the figure is telling about the industry as a whole. Food service, along with retail, is low paying and offers largely entry level jobs. Thus, this sector will be the first to suffer in worker shortages, as new openings allow workers to enter higher-paying professions. The food industry is usually the first to suffer in a recession, says Culinary Arts program Chef Instructor Travis Teska, but also the first to recover.
The reality is that there just aren’t the same number of food service workers as their once were. According to statistics from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 898,000 open jobs nationwide in the accommodation and food service industry in August 2018. That’s a 20% increase in open jobs from that same month in 2017.
It’s not the only industry suffering, but the numbers are much more stark. Consider that the category of goods manufacturing saw only a 9% increase in the number of openings during that time period.
The worker shortage is hitting everyone, of course. But as higher paying jobs offer more income and benefits while lowering requirements for potential employees, those industries will draw from food service workers even more, says Derek Heikkinen, director of business operations at the North Central Wisconsin Workforce Development Board.
The area overall has seen a major wage growth in the past 18 months, which means the food service industry is competing with the higher wages across the board, especially in manufacturing.
And all this is happening in a county expected to add a lot more jobs than people. According to an economic overview by labor market analytics firm Emsi, the number of jobs grew by 4,738 in the past five years in Marathon County, but the population only grew by 993. It’s not projected to get any better: The county is projected to add more than 1,900 jobs in the next five years but the population is expected to grow by only around 1,000.
Total population doesn’t tell the whole picture. The county has fewer young people than average and more adults “retiring soon,” according to the report. Marathon County has 24,066 residents in the Millennial generation — in other words, young workers to fill jobs; that’s about 4,000 short than an area the size of Marathon County should have, according to the report. On the other end, it has 42,846 people listed as retiring soon, about 4,000 more than average for an area the size of Marathon County. And birth rates are lower than average in Marathon County, pointing to a problem not likely to get better any time soon.
Food service and accommodation is the sixth largest industry in Marathon County, with nearly 5,000 total jobs. It’s only added about 250 jobs in the past five years. Perhaps not surprising, the data shows, food service and accommodation is near the bottom in terms of earnings per worker.
So far there have been eight graduates of the two-year culinary program at NTC (it’s new, so has had only one graduating class to date). In the meantime, the Wausau area has seen Perkins and Bletsoe Cheese close recently, and Briq’s closed two locations for lack of workers.
Even at the national level, the food industry is concerned. “I don’t see the problem getting any easier,” Panera Bread’s CEO Blaine Hurst told Business Insider in October. “I don’t see somehow there’s an extra 50 million foodservice workers that are gonna drop into the country and disperse around the country in the way we need them to disperse.”
Some chains such as Jack in the Box and Dunkin Donuts are even investing in automation to help fill some of those worker shortages. Others such as McDonald’s, KFC, Panera and Wendy’s already have rolled out robot workers in some places. A robot at fast food chain CaliBurger called Flippy does just what its name implies: It flips burgers. That helps replace line cooks.
Well, so what? a person might ask. That’s the nature of labor markets. If no one wants to do a job and can get paid better elsewhere, them’s the laissez faire breaks. But not so fast. Just about everyone likes going out to eat, and what happens when restaurants start closing and there are just fewer places to go in town? It can make a place, frankly, kind of boring — not exactly a recipe for attracting new workforce talent to the area.
“When it comes to attracting and retaining new talent, we want to have as many of those diverse options as possible,” Heikkinen says. “It’s a draw to Millennials to have those options.”
Tomorrow’s chefs and kitchen crew
Students of NTC’s Culinary Arts program practice making soup from scratch. The program is so important that Red Eye Brewing owner Kevin Eichelberger for two years has offered scholarships there.
New students find a few things surprising about the food service industry when they enter the program, Teska says. For one, the cooking aspect is a small part of being a chef. “Not every kitchen needs a head chef, but every one of them needs a kitchen manager,” he says.
By managing things such as ordering, food expenses and food waste, a chef can often make or break a restaurant. Margins are so slim in the industry that the right chef can make the difference of whether a restaurant is profitable or not.
Despite all the fancy cooking shows you’ve seen, not everyone wants to be the next Emeril Legasse or Gordon Ramsay. Several of the students I spoke to in the culinary arts program say they aspire to start their own restaurants. Teska tells me of one student who plans to work for a food magazine. Another came from a graphic design background.
“Ten to 15 years ago, they wanted to be a chef. That’s the only thing they were interested in,” Teska says of students in culinary programs. “Our students are interested in more than that now.”
For some, they already worked in the food service industry but want to work their way up to higher paying positions. MattieAnna Sechser says she has been in the industry for 16 years but signed up for the culinary arts program to move up the industry ladder. “I got sick of the low paying jobs and I want to make good money,” Sechser says.
Lori Groat of Tomahawk told City Pages she is going back after being a stay at home mother of six children. She hopes to open a restaurant after she graduates. The former heavy equipment operator Ronald Kubetz told City Pages the same, that he hopes to open a small cafe.
Where are the workers?
The worker shortage is not unknown to Wausau area restaurants. Keeping good staff is a key to keeping business steady and the customer experience strong, local restaurateurs say.
There hasn’t been a lot of turnover at Townies, says owner Tyler Vogt. And there’s a good reason for that — Vogt likes to make sure his employees are taken care of. It’s a busy bar, so bartenders make good money at the food and music joint (Townies is the dining side and Malarkey’s is the pub/entertainment venue).
And many of Townies’ kitchen employees not only make a salary but also receive profit sharing. “It’s rare to see a new face,” Vogt says. His newest bar employee has been there two years; he has a new kitchen employee but the next newest person has been there two years. “We’ve managed to keep the same core crew for about six years,” Vogt says.
Red Eye Brewing owner Kevin Eichelberger shares a similar experience. Keeping good employees around has been key to the company’s success. There’s a reason why the restaurant usually has a long wait list for seating on weekends.
Red Eye comes at employment from two angles: the business has extremely high standards in who they hire, Eichelberger says, and then they do what they can to keep those quality workers.
For example, wait staff need to pass a test about their knowledge of the menu, the beer, and the brewing process. Its’ not uncommon to fail it the first time, and those who fail it enough times are not kept on. “People are amazed when they flunk it for the first time,” Eichelberger says.
Those standards might seem tough to keep in an age when fewer job candidates are walking through the door, but those high standards are more important to the success of the business, Eichelberger says. “I would rather work understaffed and have good people on, and have them make more, than have a couple of people creating issues for us,” Eichelberger says.
There’s carrot to go with the stick. Eichelberger says he pays above industry standard, and regularly throws parties for staff and their friends and family, or takes some out on bonding trips. He and management try to be understanding about their employees personal lives. The restaurant is closed on Sundays so that staff know they can always have a day off. And Eichelberger definitely believes in the culinary program at NTC — so much so that the restaurant is now in its second year of offering two scholarships to the program.
But what if a restaurant is just starting out? Finding employees can be a challenge, says Jim Daly of Daly’s in downtown Wausau. When he and his wife, Tee Daly, opened Basil in Weston 10 years ago, the economy was seeing the opposite problem. It was during the recession, and people were looking for work and few were going out to restaurants. Basil’s small size — it seated around 50-60 people — coupled with its proximity to large businesses helped the restaurant succeed in that difficult time period, he says. Now, at his new restaurant, finding good employees has been the bigger challenge.
Daly, Vogt and Eicrhelberger all said there are simply fewer people coming through the door to apply these days. Daly’s did an open interview a few weeks ago. They put out a Facebook post that got shared and viewed a lot. Not a single person walked in an applied.
“I think the factories are in the same position, they’re looking for workers too, and their wages are going up,” Daly says. “Our wages are going up too, but not at the same pace. It’s a tough industry.”