Hungry for help: Is Asheville’s food and drink industry outpacing its employee pool?

A PIECE OF THE PIE: Employees at Standard Pizza’s two locations in West Asheville, pictured, and Biltmore Village receive benefits such as a 401k plan and profit-sharing. These incentives may help the business retain staff members as the growth of the local food and drink industry surpasses that of the area’s labor pool. Photo by Cindy Kunst

The Asheville culinary renaissance is bringing a wealth of new restaurants to the area along with countless nods from national news outfits. Local diners have an enviable landscape of restaurants to choose from. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the Asheville metro area (which comprises Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties) added 190 restaurants from 2004-14 — a leap from 750 to 940 establishments.

While it’s appetizing for customers to have a smorgasbord of eating options, this growth also means potential service industry employees are eyeing a vast menu of occupational opportunities. There are nearly 19,300 food and drink industry positions  in the Asheville metro area, say statistics from the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber also notes that the industry has expanded faster than others in the area over the past decade, adding 4,710 jobs since 2006. The closest competitor is ambulatory heath care services, which added just over 2,900 jobs over the same period.

Even more impressive is the local food and drink industry’s 32 percent growth rate over the past 10 years compared to the Asheville area’s overall job growth of just 9 percent during the same time. National and state food and drink industry growth rates also lag behind Western North Carolina’s at 21 and 24 percent, respectively.

Significantly, however, although the number of people living in Western North Carolina has increased, that growth has not kept pace with the region’s restaurant boom. The Asheville metro area’s population grew 11 percent, adding a total of 44,398 people, between 2006 and 2014, the most recent year for which the U.S. Census Bureau has data available.

Increased traffic

Beyond the math, it’s not hard to observe the uptick in the number of eateries and bars. Jim Coleman, owner of Standard Pizza in West Asheville and Biltmore Village, says he’s watched the Haywood Road corridor change since opening his first store in 2009. “There was a handful of bars and restaurants — it was pretty limited back then, especially the late-night business,” says Coleman. “One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed in West Asheville is, back in 2009, after 9 p.m., there wasn’t really any foot traffic or cars on the road; it was a completely different scene. Now West Asheville is such a happening spot late at night. There are always people walking up and down the street.”

And back then, Coleman says, people were hungry for employment. “The entire time I was working on the space to get it ready, I had a constant revolving door of people coming in and asking when we were opening, if we were still hiring, dropping off resumes,” he says. “I had a flood of applications. The economy had just crashed the year before so I was getting resumes from people with graduate degrees, just a lot of people that are overqualified to work in restaurants.”

Some people have been waiting much longer for the current climate the city is enjoying. Back in 1995, Mike Rangel opened Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. on Merrimon Avenue. He now has three locations of that business and a forthcoming taco venture. Rangel describes downtown Asheville in the ’90s as having had an underdeveloped restaurant scene. “There were more people and fewer jobs available, so we had a good opportunity to choose some stellar people. When we first opened, we were only looking for a few employees and still had 30 to 40 people apply,” he says. He now employs about 155 people.

Rangel is keenly aware the restaurant industry has become considerably more competitive, noting “It definitely takes us awhile longer to get a management candidate than it used to.”

Barry Bialik, owner of Thirsty Monk, opened the first of his three pubs in 2008. His first venture had him searching for about six employees, and he now has a staff of about 50. “It was a lot easier” then, he says. “It was in the early days of the growing brew and restaurant scene, so there were a lot of good candidates to pick from. The quality was definitely higher.” Particularly challenging these days, says Bialik, is finding qualified managers. “People have moved up faster than they really should have. It obliterated midlevel management.”

Attention to retention

Finding a good employee doesn’t guarantee longevity. Aside from variables that can’t be controlled, such as graduating college or relocating due to personal issues, employers are looking to lock down competent workers. “Anytime we recognize a superstar in the making, we do anything we can to make sure they’re treated well and feel happy,” says Rangel. “And now more than ever, because there are so many cool places to work at — there are restaurants I’d like to work at.”

Rangel says that attempts to boost retention often involve giveaways and other morale builders. “Every couple of years we do a thing called the Euro Lotto. We do a drawing to send a staff member to Europe; it’s two round-trip tickets for Paris, London or Amsterdam,” he says.

Coleman has had success in keeping a consistent nucleus of staff at his Haywood Road location, with most employees having at least two years under their belts. “We try to keep a laid-back environment and also a respectful one,” says Coleman. “I’ve worked for managers that talk to people in a disrespectful and insulting manner. I don’t like to talk to other people that way, whether they’re employees or not. Everyone gets along really well, and we’ve got a core of people that have been there for awhile. It’s kind of like this little family.”

Beyond his managerial philosophy, Coleman offers a 401k plan and profit-sharing to all employees after one year on staff. He also notes that the addition of his second location in Biltmore Village facilitated the opportunity to create two salaried general manager positions so he could focus on administrative issues. Those positions went to two of his most tenured employees, he says.

Bialik says finding long-term employees is the goal. “We hire every person with the intent they could be a manager for us. As we’re looking to grow, it is harder for us to find people,” he says, adding that he’s seen a dramatic downswing in the number of applicants for job openings. “When we used to advertise for a position, we would sometimes get up to 250 applicants,” he says, whereas now he sees about one-tenth of that response. “When you go to Craigslist and search for ‘cook,’ there’s usually 150-200 job postings, and that’s a lot. There’s more jobs out there than there are people to fill them,” he says.

Bialik also notes that losing staff is often a product of moving up in the world. “When we lose people it’s usually because they become managers at other places. People who are bartenders get hired as general managers at other places,” he says.

Feast or famine

Ultimately, there are only so many people in the Asheville metro area to fill the more than 19,000 food and drink industry jobs. Of course, variables such as management style, location, dress codes (or lack thereof), hours of operation and number of available shifts also play a role in the recruitment and retention of employees that will inherently favor some businesses over others. However, the need for labor is clearly growing.

Also continuing to increase is the city’s desirability for people who are prime candidates for working in the food and drink industry. The question is whether those two growth rates will ever keep pace with each other. “I’d say it’s more of a quantity issue,” says Rangel. “The quality of people that move to Asheville always has been, and always will be, better than other cities because Asheville is a cool town, so the people it attracts are the same ilk.”

Meanwhile, Bialik isn’t waiting for the right people to move here. “When we hire for managers, we’ve been hiring from outside,” he says. “We’ve actually moved people to Asheville to be managers for the Thirsty Monk. The restaurant and brewing scene is growing faster than people are able to move to town, faster than the employment pool. And it dilutes the quality a bit.” To that end, he says his last two general manager hires have been out-of-market and achieved by advertising in what Bialik calls “feeder regions” such as Chattanooga, Knoxville and Atlanta.

But not everyone is feeling the pinch. Coleman says, “I certainly haven’t experienced [a labor shortage]. With that being said, I’ve been really lucky with the West Asheville crew and have had very little turnover. The Biltmore location has had more turnover. Nothing significant, and I’ve always got a stack of resumes to choose from.”

 

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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