Putting it on the line

A FINE LINE: Anejandro Gonzalez works the line at Chestnut. As retaining back-of-house employees becomes increasingly challenging, many local restaurants are working to sweeten the pot with higher wages, more benefits and greater opportunities for advancement. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Line cooks are the backbone of restaurants. They toil behind the scenes and spend long hours on their feet but get very little of the glory.

“The job is physically hard, can have odd hours and puts the cook in contact with fire and sharp objects,” says Kevin Westmoreland, co-owner of the Corner Kitchen and Chestnut and president of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association.

Historically, pay for line cooks has also been lower than in other parts of the restaurant industry, which could contribute to why it’s getting more and more difficult for restaurateurs to find line cooks who are willing to commit for the longterm. In order to attract and retain good employees, many restaurateurs consider becoming Living Wage Certified to be a step in the right direction.

What’s a living wage?

PayScale.com reports that a line cook earns an average of $10.73 per hour with only modest increases in pay over the first five to 10 years in the position. Additional experience does not always have much impact on income, and most people in this line of work will move on to other positions after 20 years or less in this field.

Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics of Western North Carolina, reports that her organization currently counts among its Living Wage Certified members 24 full-service restaurants that employ line cooks. In addition, she says, there are other food-service businesses, such as catering companies, counter service-only eateries and food trucks, that have obtained the certification as well.

“Every certified employer has the same rules,” Meath says: Employers must pay $12.50 per hour or $11 per hour with employer-provided health insurance. Interns, apprentices and staff who are still in their first 90 days of employment are excluded from the criteria, she adds, and a few adjustments are made for benefits such as free shift meals.

To become certified, employers must fill out a short application and pay a fee that ranges from $50 to $250, depending on the number of employees. Once an application is submitted, a Just Economics staff member follows up to gather any additional information needed, and a recommendation is made to the organization’s board of directors about whether the application meets criteria and should be approved.

But after jumping through such hoops, the benefits to the employer can include reduced staff turnover, increased productivity, lower training and development costs, an elevated base of conscious consumers and more, says Meath. Once certified, businesses must go through a recertification process every two years.

Stepping up their game

To address the line cook shortage, a growing number of Asheville restaurants are also focusing on offering more benefits in addition to better pay. Westmoreland reports that his restaurants pay all of their line cooks a living wage and offer health insurance to staff who work more than 30 hours per week.

“Our goal is to make sure that all our staff have two days off each week and that the shifts are reasonable when they are at work, but it’s still a tough job,” Westmoreland says.

Jesson Gil, owner of downtown’s The Blackbird restaurant, says that when he and his wife, Cristina, purchased the business last spring, they knew it was important to them to become Living Wage Certified.

“Before we entered the picture, on average, line cooks were making about $8.50 an hour,” Gil says. “Now, we’re close to $10. It’ll take us a couple of years to get to $12.50. The business here continues to grow each month in sales, and the wages will keep trend.  It’s my belief that through twice-a-year reviews and raises we would continue to see wages move up past the Living Wage threshold.”

Other benefits at Blackbird include three days of bereavement pay and a flexible schedule. Next year, he says, there’s a chance of adding health insurance too.

Gil says that his desire to offer fair pay and benefits comes from personal experience. “I grew up poor. We were a family of seven. My dad made about $11,000 a year. Our water got turned off all the time, and since we were in a border town [El Paso, Texas], we would shop in Juarez, Mexico, for clothes and other necessities,” he says. “The insecurity that comes with low wages strikes in my soul. I worked at McDonald’s to put myself through college and can mark a lot of life as being a struggle. Just 10 years ago, I lived paycheck to paycheck. Really, it just sucks to struggle like that, and if I can do my part, I’d like to try.”

So, have these wage raises worked in these restaurateurs’ favor?

At Blackbird, Gil says, retention seems to have improved only slightly with higher wages.

“In my last businesses, I consistently paid more than the restaurants around me – by about a dollar an hour. I also gave regular wage increases and offered health insurance and other benefits. Initially, there’s some excitement, but then the wage becomes the norm and it becomes an issue of work environment,” he says. “It may make us a little more competitive. Asheville is a small town and the word gets out about how people are treated or paid.”

For Katie Button, chef and co-owner of Cúrate and Nightbell, offering a living wage not only helps her businesses stay competitive but also helps her sleep at night. “It doesn’t really seem to make a big difference in retention, but it does help us to attract better talent, and it’s just a good benchmark for us,” she says. “It makes me feel good about what we do.”

Part-timers who work less than 34 hours per week are paid $11.85 after 90 days. Full-time employees start at well over $11 per hour plus benefits that include health insurance, dental and vision coverage. After 90 days, employees can also start accruing paid time off — up to one week during the first year and two weeks after that. She hopes offering benefits will encourage people to work full-time. “People should be able to spend time with their family or take a sick day without being penalized,” she says.

Button says that when she hires a line cooks, she hopes they’ll stay for the long term, but, for the most part, she finds that most stay for a year or so and move on. “That’s fine too,” she says. “I think many people don’t really understand the job. It can be very repetitive, and it’s difficult. Many line cooks are young and still trying to figure out what they want to do. What really hurts is when you invest the time and money in a new hire, and they leave before 90 days. I want to know someone is going to stay for at least a year, and I hope being Living Wage Certified will help in that regard.”

But line-cook jobs can also be stepping stones within the business. She mentions an intern she hired when she opened Cúrate nearly five and a half years ago who moved up to line cook and today works as her sous chef. Another hire, she says, worked as a line cook for more than a year and is now her director of culinary operations.

“Most of the time, people become cooks because they love food and what they can do with it,” says Westmoreland. “Not everyone can do the job. We work hard to appreciate that skill.”

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2 thoughts on “Putting it on the line

  1. boatrocker

    Good on those eateries that are living wage certified. It might be nice to see a list of every restaurant in Asheville and to see whether
    they are certified for that or not, though it would be a huuuuuuuuge undertaking for any journalism rag. Who is up to the challenge, or is that info already available somewhere? I for one would be curious to learn more.

    I can always spot line cooks out of uniform (those baggy MC Hammer black and white pants) by the burns on their forearms, much like the sad kid you went to high school with.

    • Liisa

      Just Economics of Western NC has a complete list of living wage certified restaurants in the area if you are interested.

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