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From the Front of the House to the Back, Cleveland Restaurants are Dealing With a Talent Crunch

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"There's no question that hiring is a challenge," she says. "But you can always find people with a great personality. If they don't necessarily have the experience, we are happy to train them on how to be a great server. It might take a bit longer, but we continue to find great people."

Some of the staffing issues, says Paladar owner Andy Himmel, can be blamed simply on the distance between job and applicant. As more and more of these new restaurants pop up in hip urban centers or flashy new development projects in spendy suburbs, scores of eager potential employees simply can't make it to the front or back door.

"In wealthy areas like King of Prussia (Pennsylvania, home to the newest Paladar), the cost of living is so high that many employees don't live close to those markets, so it depends on access to public transportation," Himmel reports. "How far is someone willing to go until it stops making sense to come to a restaurant?"

Himmel, who opened his first restaurant, Boulevard Blue, on Larchmere a dozen years ago, says that he finds himself competing for his best talent not just against other restaurant owners as in days past, but against entirely new foes.

"With some of these really great front-of-house managers, you're competing against the entire world," Himmel has noticed. "Where at times people felt trapped in the restaurant industry, you have these front-of-house managers who seem comfortable moving into other industries where they work less hours, make similar amounts of money and don't have the stress that comes with working in a restaurant. When you combine that with the rising demand for high-caliber talent, there's no question that's a problem."

The same can be said of chefs, who are finding new opportunities outside the restaurant kitchen, be that in the kitchens of a high-end grocery store (say, Giant Eagle Market District), at a country club, as the owner of a small catering firm, or behind the desk as a food writer.

Despite being a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, and despite launching the award-winning Greenhouse Tavern alongside Jonathon Sawyer, when faced with the choice of staying in the kitchen or moving on to greener pastures, Seeholzer opted for the latter when he signed with his current employer MRN.

"First and foremost, it was my kids and my family, realizing that I had gone days and days without seeing them," he reflects. "For so long it was looked at as a glamorous thing, and so many people got into it, and then they realized that it's not as easy as it looks, those 15-hour days in a hot kitchen."

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Local restaurant owners who look to Tri-C's Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Center downtown for help in the matter of staffing are not finding too much in the way of relief. Despite the fact that some 350 students are presently enrolled in the hospitality program, only about 30 make it to graduation each year, according to Karen Monath, associate dean of hospitality management. She attributes the disparity between enrollment and graduation to the realities of life.

"All of our culinary students are required to do at least 200 hours of field experience in the industry as part of their degree," she explains. "Most of our students also work full time or almost full time. Many just end up taking jobs and not completing their degree."

Monath, also a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, admits that today's student body and entry-level workforce has a very different perception of the career than she and her colleagues did coming up. The odd contradiction is that celebrity chefs and the Food Network have simultaneously created unprecedented interest in the culinary profession while at the same time destroying any likelihood of happiness or success for many who enter it.

"I think the Food Network has helped us and hurt us," Monath says. "Because many of our students come in thinking they'll be the next Food Network chef or, 'I'm going to be some chef to the stars.' No, you're going to be schlepping in a hot kitchen on a hopefully busy line for a number of years. The work ethic is not the same; it's just not, and I don't know what created that."

Deagan's chef Kafcsak, who happens to be a graduate of Tri-C's culinary arts program and now a sitting board member, thinks that his alma mater should implement changes that can benefit future students, graduates and employers.

"I feel like they're stuck on a very traditional ACF track," he says, referring to the American Culinary Federation, the organization that accredits culinary schools and programs nationwide. "They're not teaching enough modern food. There is such a high dropout rate because in six months at a good restaurant they can see everything they would see at culinary school. And the food is up-to-date versus dated country-club style menus."

The complaints are nothing that Monath hasn't heard directly from Kafcsak as well as other chefs and owners, many of whom call weekly in search of employees. There are no current plans to deviate from the classic culinary track, she says.

"I understand that and I respect that, but we have a duty to teach our students the basics first and then they can build on that," she says. "Being ACF accredited is a means that holds us to a certain standard. It makes us more disciplined, it makes us really look at what we're doing, analyze our process, and from an educational perspective it just makes us better."

Of course, the best way to beat the supply challenge is to not be in the market for a new employee in the first place. The phrase "quality of life" comes up a lot when speaking with employers, many of whom are making life much better for their staffers than they themselves had it coming up. It's the reality of the current marketplace, one where chasing the dollar only gets a person so far.

"I insist that the people who work for me work five days a week — and not 14, 15 or 16 hours a day," says Zack Bruell, who eagerly worked those hours six or seven days a week when he was a young chef. "I want them to have quality of life, because if they have quality of life two things are going to happen: The quality of their work won't suffer and they will stay with me, which is really important. For me to grow, I need people around me to do it."

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Bruell, who employs around 470 people throughout his eight-unit empire, says that he's likely done opening new places until something dramatic changes. That could be a major shift on the supply side, or a major swing on the demand side thanks to population growth. Having multiple restaurants gives Bruell and operators like him a device to keep workers in his employ by having multiple paths of advancement.

"It's very important that people know that they have a chance to grow," he says. "If it's just a job, we don't want them. You want to surround yourself with as many people who think this is their passion, that this is their life's work, and are open-minded enough to say, 'Teach me what you know.'"

That was Nolan Cleary's precise attitude when he started working as a busboy at Lola in 1999. Today, he's the general manager of Mabel's BBQ, one of the buzziest, busiest new restaurants in Cleveland. Along the way he's held every front-of-house position there is, including server, bartender, assistant manager and beverage director. He recognized early on that hitching his wagon to the right horses was his path to success.

"From the onset, it was very obvious that I worked for good people," he recalls. "You could see that they took really good care of their employees. It was, and still very much is, like a family. Obviously, we've grown quite a bit as a restaurant group, but that approach is still something that we talk about all the time."

Another topic of discussion at staff meetings is the current state of affairs in the Cleveland restaurant scene. High-profile closures like Arcadia, Willeyville, Crop Kitchen and Crop Rocks seem to be signaling a tipping point in the marketplace. The question for Cleary and other prognosticators is whether these closings are victims of diminished demand or simply the consequences of being an inferior operation.

"A lot of places have opened, and now we're seeing the wave start to come over and see some places close," Cleary says. "Is it because there are too many restaurants or because the quality is not there? It's a tough question."

Nobody thinks about the mounting quantity of restaurants more than Dan Deagan, who is constantly surveying the landscape in search of warning signs. Is there a bubble? Is the other shoe going to drop? All he really knows for sure is what goes on within his own four walls, but he's concerned about what might be lurking around the bend.

"Thankfully, we're six years in and we've done really well," he says. "But being in this business is so stressful. You have one bad week and you wonder, 'Is this the beginning of the end?' Places that are opening right now, I can't imagine the stress they must be going through because I assume that nobody is doing as well as they expected to. There are just too many places."

Years ago, the biggest threats to small independent restaurants seemed to be the big national chains that invaded our marketplace from footholds like Legacy Village, Eton Chagrin and Crocker Park. Those developments soon will be joined by other projects like Pinecrest and Van Aken District, which will continue to place huge demands on the talent pool and the dining population's wallet.

Regardless of how it all plays out, says Himmel, well-operated independent restaurants will survive and thrive while those that aren't will see diners take their dollars elsewhere.

"What you're seeing nationally in terms of a restaurant recession is a trend affecting larger publicly traded chains," Himmel explains. "Some of those national chains that we used to think were really cool seem kind of passé and dated now. There has been a huge exponential shift over the last three or four years, with a lot of the smaller, independent operators taking a big chunk of that business. Independent restaurants that are run well, provide a good value, and offer something unique are always going to have a place in the market. The restaurants that aren't run well, that have skated along and didn't really try to evolve and grow and pay attention to what's happening, yeah, they're going to have a harder time. And maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing."

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