It’s an American cultural trope: The hand-scrawled “Help Wanted” sign fixed with masking tape to a store window. The image is such a ubiquitous symbol of American prosperity that it almost evokes a Norman Rockwell-like sense of ease. For the most part, it is a harbinger of a thriving market, a symbol that things are going well, money is being spent and business is booming.
But what happens when the sign doesn’t come down? What are the ramifications for a market that can’t find enough skilled laborers to satisfy demand? Asheville seems to have found itself trapped in this quagmire just in time for its busiest season.
“It’s been six months of hell,” says Sherrye Coggiola, owner of The Cantina at Historic Biltmore Village, a casual Mexican eatery in the heart of one of Asheville’s popular tourist districts. “We’ve never had a problem with turnover. This is the first time it has ever affected our business.”
Where are the workers?
Traditionally, as the tourist season ramps up, restaurants like The Cantina will start augmenting their staffs, hiring extra workers to seamlessly accommodate the increase in demand. But during the past six months, Coggiola says she has stopped getting calls for the restaurant’s employment postings on Craigslist, and the few folks who did show up for interviews weren’t suited for the positions.
“Where we really saw an impossibility to staff was the back of the house,” she says. Pay for kitchen positions at The Cantina starts at $10 an hour.
Coggiola isn’t alone in her dilemma. In fact, all 10 restaurants that Xpress contacted for this story complained of the same problem. “This seems to be the No. 1 thing on everyone’s minds right now in the restaurant business — that it is really hard to find qualified staff, particularly in the kitchen,” says Asheville chef and restaurateur Meherwan Irani. Irani’s restaurant empire includes the popular Indian fast casual eatery Chai Pani, Buxton Hall Barbecue, MG Road cocktail bar and two Indian restaurants in Atlanta and Decatur, Ga.
“This is not affecting us in Atlanta,” he says, explaining that his workforce there is largely made up of immigrants and he has no problems maintaining a consistent staff. “This very much seems to be an Asheville problem, from the inside looking out.”
The question of saturation
“Recently the labor pool has been really shallow and really muddy,” says Anthony Cerrato, owner of Strada Italiano. “It’s almost as if as Asheville has grown to be more of a tourist destination and tourist economy, and it is really starting to catch up with the labor pool. There are so many more places opening up that the labor pool has really dwindled.”
In terms of economics, a saturated restaurant market is a situation in which there are so many eateries that consumers are spread thin and the market becomes unsustainable. But Asheville’s saturation problem may be that the industry’s growth is outpacing the growth of its workforce.
Mike Walden, N.C. State University professor of economics, notes that a saturation of the restaurant scene is inevitable in Asheville. “How we consume food is in a state of flux now. There are major shifts occurring between preparing traditional meals at home, purchasing preprepared meals for consumption at home and eating out,” he says. “There will be a point at which Asheville is saturated with restaurants — at least for a time. It is difficult to know when that point occurs, but any entrepreneur considering opening a restaurant needs to worry about the degree of competition. Of course, a new restaurant with a unique menu, unusual amenities or a convenient location can always thrive despite there being many alternatives.”
Even stalwarts like Cúrate and Nightbell are seeing a drop in applicants. “What used to be an issue just for line cooks and dishwashers, it is becoming more difficult to fill all positions — servers, hosts, bartenders, etc.,” says co-owner and beverage and service director Felix Meana. “It seems like there is more competition, lots of jobs available but not enough qualified workers to fill them all.”
But Meana doesn’t see increasing competition as the only reason for current staffing challenges. He observes that it is becoming more difficult for his staff to find affordable places to live close to town. ”As housing prices in Asheville go up, it is becoming more and more imperative that people have transportation to get to and from downtown Asheville as they are being forced to live further from downtown,” says Meana. “It is difficult for the restaurant industry because the bus system doesn’t operate late enough for them to take the bus to and from work. We need to work on public transportation that operates at hours to support one of the biggest industries in Asheville, the hospitality industry.”
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator estimates that a single parent in Buncombe County would require $27.62 an hour to cover rent and cost of living, with $9 an hour considered poverty wages. The average pay for a starting dishwasher or line cook in Asheville is $10 an hour, just an inch above the poverty line. Most jobs for line cooks pay $12-15 an hour. According to the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, 28 percent of Asheville’s labor force is employed in the hospitality industry.
William Dissen, executive chef and owner of The Market Place, sees another possible reason culinary workers seem so scarce. He echoes other restaurateurs with observations of “low unemployment and a lot of restaurants that are all busy.” But he also says he has lost employees to other growing industries. “There are a lot more jobs like construction that are taking candidates from the work pool,” he says. “We’ve had a few people make the jump to construction as it’s booming in Western North Carolina.”
“It has really forced us to address benefits and quality of life for restaurant workers,” says Irani. His restaurants have always had a reputation for taking good care of staff, but as he struggles to maintain employees, he’s now finding that may not be enough.
“This industry has always been a bit of a hard-knock life and is not something that most people think of as a career with upward mobility,” he says. “That’s one of the primary drivers of us wanting to continue to grow and expand, is the ability to offer those options and opportunities to our team, and to be able to afford to give our team those benefits that other industries can offer.” But growth and expansion become stunted when an industry reaches a saturation point.
Cerrato sees one small glimmer of hope: As Asheville gains a reputation as a restaurant town, it becomes more enticing for people who make their careers in the kitchen. “We are slowly starting to see skilled cooks moving here from other places, so I think there may be a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.
Irani notes that if that is going to be the future of the Asheville restaurant scene, it is going to take a concerted effort on the part of the city and its community of restaurateurs to make the area friendlier to the industry.
“I feel like we need to start coming together as an industry in Asheville and start having this conversation amongst each other,” he says. “A rising tide raises all ships, and [it would be great] if we, as a town, can have a reputation for not just having awesome restaurants and amazing chefs, but if we could have a work utopia for our restaurant workers. And that’s not just going to involve the restaurants, but it is going to involve the city. How can we make Asheville a more attractive place to work and live?”