July 18, 2019
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Maine chef shortage leaves restaurateurs scrambling

In Kittery, in Portland, in Bar Harbor and beyond, the story is the same: Line cooks are wanted but few are stepping up.

With Memorial Day weekend fast approaching, kitchen help in Maine is in short supply.

Craigslist ads and help-wanted signs dotting the coast underline the urgency.

Owners of clam huts on the water and James Beard-winning spots in Maine’s foodiest city alike are straining to find cooks for the summer surge.

Michael Landgarten, owner of Robert’s Maine Grill and Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, is offering $1,000 for inhouse referrals and has sent an employee oversees to find help.

“We used to have stacks of applications,” said Landgarten, who has been in the restaurant industry for 30 years. “Now seasonal workers want to be outside, cutting lawns, painting houses, doing construction. Not as many want to work in kitchens.”

Those who have applied are not skilled enough to handle the fast-paced line cook gig in this full-service, two-story restaurant with a raw bar and deck. “I’d much prefer to hire locals. It would be much easier,” he said. “But it gets harder and harder.”

Although he has hired 30 people on work visas from Romania, Serbia, Czech Republic and Jamaica to work in Robert’s kitchen this season, the remaining spots are still unfilled. “This is the worst I’ve seen since 1986. We are not getting any applicants.”

The reason is multipronged.

An improved economy means more jobs are available, and competition among restaurateurs is fierce. While there aren’t enough local applicants for kitchen work, cities such as Portland, followed by Bangor, Auburn and Lewiston, continue welcoming new restaurants regularly. On top of that, seasonal operations all along the coast swell with hiring demands this time of year.

“Summer dwarfs the winter population. There is a tremendous need for cooks,” Greg Dugal, chief operating officer of the Maine Restaurant Association, said.

“The shortage is true and acute. It rears its ugly head periodically,” Dugal said. “In Maine roughly 40 percent of our industry is seasonal kitchens in inns and restaurants. People are less inclined to settle for a seasonal offering when they can get year-round work.”

But this year, even established year-round restaurants such as Fore Street in Portland are struggling to find qualified cooks. Reservations at the pioneering farm-to-table restaurant already are booked well into July, and up to three cooks are needed. If they can’t fill the positions, available resources will be stretched thin during their busiest time of the year. The restaurant, which turns 20 in June, put the city on the dining map, but applicants for the high-volume kitchen recently have been subpar.

“In the past couple of years it has been hard,” Fore Street general manager Robyn Violette said. “The work ethic of the students now is not like it was 20 years ago. They want accolades and money but don’t want to work as hard.”

Those who do have owners vying for them like never before. Poaching is reported across the state with owners wooing chefs away with higher pay. The problem is not unique to Maine. A New York Times article stated that cities such as Manhattan and San Francisco are feeling the chef shortage sting.

“In New York, chefs are all talking about Portland. It’s a good thing for the city and southern Maine to develop a reputation. I think it’s terrific, but it creates a labor challenge,” said Tod Dana, owner of El Rayo Taqueria in Scarborough, where a help-wanted banner has been in place for weeks.

To make it through the high season with a strong kitchen crew, Dugal recommends seasonal restaurant owners develop an employment strategy.

“They need to create relationships with career centers, visa providers, partner with places in Florida, where chefs look to leave in the hot months. Outreach in this busy industry is critical,” Dugal said.

Garrett Fitzgerald, owner of Bar Harbor Lobster Co., said available and affordable housing on Mount Desert Island is scaring away college students who’ve historically flocked there to work in summer shacks.

“The weekly rental scene is so busy. It’s limited the amount of rooms available for people to come up and work for the season,” said Fitzgerald, who is hiring all kitchen positions. “I need cooks, prep workers, dishwashers. … It’s unbelieveable.”

And as the island welcomes visitors for Acadia National Park’s centennial this year, tourism is booming.

“Last weekend was like August,” Fitzgerald said. More hotels have opened in the last five years, and restaurants have followed suit.

“At the moment it is pretty tight. You go to every single restaurant and everyone is looking for kitchen help,” said Fitzgerald, who has delayed his opening to get ready. “There are more jobs and less places to put people. We’ve planned for visitors but not people that have to serve them.”

In southern Maine, where housing is even pricier, owners such as Dana, who opens another taqueria in Portland this summer, strives to offer his kitchen help a decent wage and treat them right.

“We wait all year for these wonderful months. If someone jumps ship the last week of June, you are in trouble. So you pay them more than a competitive wage, making sure you get a commitment through this busy season,” Dana said.

Line cooks at Fore Street start above minimum wage and receive performance-based increases, Violette said. The restaurant, which is co-owned by James Beard-winner Sam Hayward, pays employees full life and health insurance, awards two yearly bonuses, offers profit sharing, company outings and free dinner every night.

Still, with so many restaurants in Portland opening every month, chefs can be swayed by dollar signs.

“They don’t take into consideration the big picture,” Violette said.

Despite benefits and reasonable wages, grunt work in the kitchen is not coveted by those cycling into the workforce.

“It’s a difficult position with high pressure situations on Friday and Saturday night, when lots of people want to be fed at same time,” Dugal said.

As baby boomers retire and millennials saturate the job market, becoming a chef is losing its luster. College grads are discovering that cooking in a kitchen is not a direct ticket to Food Network fame.

“It’s idolized on TV, but it’s a hard job. It’s grueling, long hours until you get to sous chef and you make OK money,” Violette said. “People think you create a few things and you are Wolfgang Puck.”

Those who are willing to climb through the ranks, such as Kyle Kunesh, working the line at the Somerset Tap House in Portland last week, are feeling the heat. Since the restaurant opened in early April in Whole Foods Market, Kunesh has worked with few breaks.

“We’ve been looking for another cook for a month and haven’t found one. I’ve been called in every day — even on personal days,” he said. “I’ve been working hard for six to eight weeks.”

Kunesh said applicants have Michelin star aspirations.

“It’s a tougher job with a specialized skill set that doesn’t always pay the best,” Kunesh said. “But one can move up the ranks and end up with a good spot at a good restaurant if they are willing to do the work.”

To ramp up for the hordes that descend on Maine eateries in the summer, many restaurant owners are filling out visa forms for seasonal workers. That lengthy and costly process has only compounded the issue.

Landgarten’s human resources person traveled to Romania to interview candidates face to face. He has hired 45 for his three restaurants but said the endeavor is labor intense.

“I’m paying a full-time HR person to get that working. Not to mention transportation, plus housing and bikes once they get here,” he said. “It’s huge.”

At Robert’s Maine Grill, this is the “most aggressive we’ve been financially,” Landgarten said. “We have had referrals, but they are not flying in the door.”

In Orono, co-owner of Woodman’s Bar and Grill Mark Horton has had one applicant in less than a week for a line cook position. Finding people with experience willing to start in a junior position becomes more arduous each year.

“They want to be a superstar head chef like they see on TV. There is only one or two per kitchen that can be a chef de cuisine and the sous chef,” said Horton, who paid his dues in the industry.

“I’ve been in business for a long time. I started as busser, worked my way up to sandwich maker to cashier and moved up to cook,” Horton said. “There are not as many people that want to put the time in and learn the trade.”

But there is no shortage of food lovers arriving in Maine looking for the hottest chef-driven lobster roll.

“The good side is people have money and want to go out to eat, but that creates a strain on the system,” Dugal said. “In modern times, it’s as bad as I’ve seen it.”

On the bright side, there are boundless opportunities for dedicated people willing to work in a fast-paced environment in Maine this summer.

“It’s a tough spot to hire for. It’s not super glamorous work. If you love it, there is a job for you,” Landgarten said. “A lot of people are looking.”

 



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