Letter: Asheville restaurant owners aren’t willing to pay for good staff

Graphic by Lori Deaton

I am writing to you now in response to reading an article you recently posted about the Asheville restaurant labor crisis [“Falling Short: What’s Causing Asheville’s Restaurant Labor Crisis?” Aug. 23, Xpress]. I am a former culinary professional, and the article you published really came across as a gross misrepresentation of the real issues surrounding these restaurants’ current staffing problems.

A little about myself: I am 30 years old, and I worked in the service industry [starting when] I was 15 years old. I graduated from two culinary schools with majors in both cooking and baking; I have worked at some of the most popular restaurants in Asheville. … I have seen what the people you interviewed in the article were talking about, but from the eyes of the employee, there are major problems that were not even spoken of.

My first point is that a couple of people state that the starting wage is $10 [an hour]. The problem here is the term “starting.” That starting $10 is all most cooks will ever get, meaning it is not a starting wage, it is the standard wage. Also, the numbers claiming that the average cooks’ wage in Asheville is $12-15 an hour are not accurate. Nine-$12 would be a much more accurate number. Most of the people would fall on the lower end of that scale.

The point being: No one is willing to pay for good staff. As the article is written, one individual talks about how they have not had problem with turnover before, and that their Atlanta stores do not see the same issue because they have a high population of immigrants. This is stating that they do not have a problem replacing employees in Atlanta who want a raise because they have a large disposable and more desperate work pool.

Everyone in this article points out that there are not enough “qualified” workers here in Asheville and blame competitive businesses for stealing workers. The fact that this was listed as a crisis is an overstatement or a misrepresentation of the actual issues. This is a problem for a few select business owners who refused to put any real value on their employees and are now worried as to why no one wants to work for them when they have done literally nothing to offer any real incentive apart from a basic poverty-line paycheck.

The people interviewed speak about how housing prices are driving people away; this would not be as big of an issue if they actually paid people enough money to live beyond low-income housing. Also, no one spoke about how not only is the service industry grossly underpaid, but they are also incredibly overworked. Many people end up working 60 hours or more easily a week and then get punished or reprimanded for putting in too many overtime hours. The problem is that often this amount of work is required to keep a restaurant running properly, and it is also the only way for a lot of employees to get their wages up to a livable level.

Many times, most of these restaurants only hire full-time staff and refuse to hire on part-time help, which would help spread hours around and prevent overtime, but many just don’t like the hassle of the paperwork involved in extra workers and just dump the work onto the current staff and get mad when they go over their hours. None of these people interviewed talked about how many restaurants will trick a hardworking employee into taking on a salaried position that seems great on paper and then end up working more hours then they did before, and it works out to be a lower wage then if they had gotten overtime for all of their hours.

It is a very hard-knock life in the food industry that leads many to drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and even suicide. The stress put on people for fear of losing a job over $10 [an hour] when they actually find one is not fair.

I apologize for the length of this letter, but I really want you to understand what the struggle really is here, and it lies solely on the business owners themselves not making a proper business plan that involves planning out proper employee wages, staffing and scheduling. Less than 1 percent of the industry offers any form of benefits, and paid time off is never offered. Most end up working every weekend and holiday without holiday pay. And they are wondering why most are choosing to go back to school or join construction sites.

The simple idea that cooking is fun and you get to be artistic with food is a lie once the grind of a line cook sets in. My final thought also is that they kept mentioning that there were not enough qualified workers in this town. A-B Tech has an outstanding culinary program with close to 100 students. These are classically trained individuals who are paying to learn how to become professionals, and more graduate every year. The problem is that this industry puts very little value on formal education in cooking and baking. It can get you an interview and definitely an edge on skill tests, but it won’t make you any more money. They will hire an applicant with a degree before someone else a lot of the time, but they won’t pay them more.

Again this is just another reason pointing to how all of these businesses have never actually tried to put any value on their own workforce, and now karma has drained the work pool because the workers got wise and moved on. One restaurant said it had been six months of hell. Working for less than $11 an hour for four years is much closer to hell, but they would not know anything about that.

Please look into posting a follow-up article about the real reasons that this industry has thoroughly used and abused its workforce and refused to accommodate for the rise of living costs and now worry that it’s competition and poor bus routes to downtown that are keeping them from finding good people. If they were actually good to people, they would find the workforce they so desperately need right now, but until they realize this, they will just keep digging themselves deeper into the [rut] they have found themselves in. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

— Anthony Horger



Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Letters
We want to hear from you! Send your letters and commentary to letters@mountainx.com

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

36 thoughts on “Letter: Asheville restaurant owners aren’t willing to pay for good staff

    • Susan

      I taught hospitality management for 32 years and it’s important to note that the average profit margin nationwide for restaurants is only 5%. It’s a business where pennies count. Yes wages and benefits have never been good. It’s also rarely regarded as a “career” choice except for management. One problem is the product which is primarily food. In no other industry can the consumer look at the product and compare its components to what they would pay for them retail (grocery store) nor would it be for impossible for them to personally reproduce the product. Could they buy the components and produce a toaster? No. For that reason I refuse to pay $27 for a steak and potato. Restaurant food has a finite perceived value. People are only going to pay so much for a burger. Service is the other part of the equation. Service provides a convenience. Again people are only going to pay so much for something they can do to themselves. If consumer prices go too high the perceived value is diminished. Luckily this is a tourist town with a captive customer base or few restaurants would survive. The restaurant industry is very tough and rough. As far as owners and managers go shame on them if they don’t appreciate their employees. It’s the employees who satisfy the customer and control costs. Bottom line – restaurants can’t pay high wages or afford good benefits without charging prices that would be unacceptable to the consumer but they can treat employees well in many other ways. Even as a professor I wanted to tell my students to go do something else. Of course I couldn’t do that but I was brutally honest about the downsides of the industry. Did it make a difference to very many? No they still wanted to do it. In reality restaurant workers could make the same money and have better benefits doing much easier jobs.

  1. NFB

    People want tailored suits but are only willing to pay off the rack prices.

    Likewise, employees Harvard graduates, but are only willing to pay Wal-Mart wages.

    These contradictions can only hold for so long. At some point something is going to have to give and we will get either a return of share cropping, or a return of living wages (cough)unions(cough)

      • Joseph Dawes

        Cough drop maybe? Remember, Unions can be money sucking entities who don’t care about you either.

        • NFB

          I don’t disagree that unions aren’t immune to corruption and other problems that plague the human race. But there is no denying that unions helped create the middle class in this country and as the bumper sticker reads “The Labor Movement: The People Who Brought You The Weekend.”

          If any company or industry does not want unions then eliminate the need for them. Pay employees a decent wage and benefits, and treat that with respect and dignity. Increasingly it seems to be a lesson lost on many.

    • Susan

      Keep this in mind. Higher wages and benefits directly result in higher prices for everyone including you. Take raising minimum wage. Raise minimum wage, all prices go up. People currently making about the new minimum wage do not get an increase in wages. They actually will have less disposable income to pay the increase in prices and now we have an even larger group at the minimum wage level. Wages go up – prices go up wiping out any gain. It’s a economic fact.

      • NFB

        “Raise minimum wage, all prices go up. ”

        That’s true when anyone gets a raise. Raise the CEO’s bonus (or give him or her a hefty $40 million golden parachute) to a few more million and prices go up.

        Yet it seems to be only those at the bottom of the pay scale who are expected to bear the burden of keeping cost and prices down for everybody.

      • Scotty_Mack

        Then why not set some rent controls? Landlords are the real parasites, making money in their sleep. If there were city limits on how much one could charge for rent, the restaurant would have more money left over to pay workers, who actually do the work, unlike the bloodsuckers in the finance and real estate businesses who get rich on the labor of others.

      • Susan Branch Smith

        Susan, I read your note here and above. I live in a tourist town. Although I don’t work in a tourist business (such as a restaurant), I find that in this town the owners make lots of money and the workers don’t. No matter the menu prices. This seems unfair. I realize the many challenges a food business has … and yet, in this town a $50 steak dinner benefits the owners. Not the workers.

      • Jacob

        This is partially true, but misleading. Prices would have to go up, but not by as much as workers get paid.

        A simple example:

        Say a restaurant has 10 cooks making $10/hour and working 40 hrs/week. They spend $4,000 per week in labor costs.

        To pay for this, they sell $7 sandwiches, so they need to sell 572 sandwiches to turn a profit.

        If the cooks get a raise to $15/hour, labor costs are now $6,000/week.

        If the restaurant wants to sell the same number of sandwiches and still turn a profit, the price of sandwiches goes up to $10.48. Less than the wage increased.

        The gain isn’t completely wiped out. Yes, there’s an increase, but I’ll gladly pay an extra $3 for a sandwich so that the guy making it doesn’t have to live below poverty level.

      • Jonathon Waxman

        I’m an accountant and that is the lie that bad business owners tell others to excuse their failing business models. Many business owners are more concerned with their own salaries and lazy business practices than they are of the welfare of their employees. I see it repeatedly in hospitality. Restaurants don’t have to be in the 5% profit margin if they are good at what they do. The opportunist amateurs are the ones who ruin it for the industry. Business owners are 100% responsible for the salaries of their employees and every spending decision they make in haste affects that. I no longer work in an industry that is so unprofessional in its treatment of employees.

  2. Em

    This is rampant in every industry…tech companies bring in foreigners on H1-b visas claiming that they can’t find qualified tech workers. Total bs!

    It’s really bad in NYC…wages have gone way down over the last 20 years because there’s always someone that will do the job for less! I’m not anti-immigrant…it’s just supply and demand and there are too many people vying for the same jobs.

    Minimum wage used to be a jumping off point for teenagers, now it’s all many can ever hope to make.

  3. dyfed

    Many of my friends are chefs in the restaurant industry and I’ve often been shocked at how low their wages are. That said, I think that the analysis of this issue is subpar on all sides.

    First, if there was really a serious labor shortage, wages would be rising. They aren’t, at least not yet, which points to the fact that while employers are complaining, they don’t really need workers as much as they say they do.

    Second, I read this long letter from a laborer complaining about subpar wages, and I sympathize, but I sympathize much less with people who point their fingers at restaurant owners and operators, talking about greed. The last thing that these people are is greedy. If they were, they’d be in some other industry, because opening a restaurant is a genuinely awful investment that usually makes very little profit and has a spectacular failure rate. The fact that Asheville is booming with new restaurants doesn’t change the fact that universally high wages is probably a pipe dream.

    Third, I keep hearing “skilled labor shortage, especially in kitchens” and then hearing that there isn’t a problem in other cities because of immigrants. Is the implication here that skilled kitchen laborers are usually immigrants? Dishwashers maybe, food runners, barbacks, OK. But chefs? I don’t think I buy it. I am hearing a lot of conflicting information. I’d like to see a real inquiry made as to what positions are going unfilled and which restaurants don’t have enough employees.

    • luther blissett

      “First, if there was really a serious labor shortage, wages would be rising.”

      That part of economics 101 no longer really holds. Wages have been broadly stagnant for 40 years even as productivity has increased, and the profits have been stashed in the pockets of the 1%. You’re more likely to see reporting on owners and managers bemoaning their struggle to hire experienced staff at $10/hr than consider raising wages or training recruits on the job.

      • dyfed

        >That part of economics 101 no longer really holds

        By its definition a labor shortage is not a voluntarily imposed condition. If employers are refusing to hire, there is not a general labor shortage.

        >Wages have been broadly stagnant for 40 years even as productivity has increased

        This is a commonly held belief, and it’s true but misleading. Normalized to inflation, real wages have not risen linked with productivity, but total compensation has. In other words, the money that would normally be given out in raises is instead being used to pay for employer health plans. This makes sense, because health care costs have risen astronomically.

        I’m not really interested in debating the role of “the 1%.” Nobody referenced in this article—local restaurant owners, their patrons, their employees—are part of the 1%.

  4. R

    This is a big problem that needs more focus. I have a small core of friends who lost their jobs with the sudden closure of two Applebees stores here in town. I realize corporate is a little bit different than local joints, but the point is still the same – respect your employees better. If you can’t afford to pay them either a living wage or whatever depressing standard, maybe it’s time to change your operations, such as service hours. For example if a bulk of your clientele arrive for dinner hours, why open at 11am? Stop treating your front of the line personnel like crap by paying them crap and denying them basic human needs like health insurance.

    • Lulz

      Or the owners need to work it themselves. That’s something that is being ignored. Yeah they might be there but they ain’t working it.

  5. A. Pittman

    Yes! The employees assume the owners are greedy when really the profit margin is low. And even as sales increase, so does labor and cost of food.
    As for recent grads of a culinary program does not necessarily mean they are instantly skilled professionals. Sure they have some knife skills and some knowledge that is useful in the kitchen but Chefs are not always great line cooks .

  6. Amy Gillespie

    Just as I was sitting down to read this letter, I got a call from one of my employees, right as she was supposed to be walking through the door to work to tell me her car was broken down. My choice: go get her, or work the shift myself. (Second time in 2 weeks this has happened.) I was the “chef” for 3 days this week, because one of my 2 cooks was sick, and I can’t afford to pay overtime, as much as I would like to. (You may not understand that wages also include taxes above what we pay hourly, and the government isn’t anymore forgiving that the power company or the gas company or the mortgage holder, less so, in fact.) We haven’t taken a vacation that didn’t involve getting phone calls from staff almost daily, sometimes about the stupidest crap, for nearly 11 years. Last spring, I had to choose between closing or missing my cousin’s funeral because none of my employees, the ones who “really need this job” and who “love working here” were willing to cover for a sick co-worker. You might be surprised how many folks show up late for an interview or for their first day. You might be surprised that we have to choose between hiring a dishwasher, because no self-respecting 22-year-old with a culinary degree is willing to scrub the pot he just burned, or paying him what he thinks he’s worth to flip hamburgers. You might be surprised that some owners are also plumbers, accountants, zero-budget marketing specialists, counselors, dishwashers, HVAC repairmen, diplomats, hostesses, Girl Fridays, loan-makers, babysitters (literally, I have taken care of an employee’s kid so he could work,) and yes, dishwashers. Most of the time I make about $4 per hour, and that’s if I can pay everyone else, keep the lights on, and order product. Then I get to pay myself. The only way I can pay more right now is to borrow more money, and winter is just around the corner. I am aware that the article from before is one-sided, and there needs to be a more in-depth presentation of the issues. But chalking it up to simple greed is wrong and hurtful.

    • Gee

      You’re literally just complaining about being a boss… maybe don’t be a boss if you can’t take all the extra shit you have to do and can’t pay employees properly enough to have them come in. Also, capitalism sucks and noone wants to work 40 hours a week to just get by and have no life.

      • Lulz

        Crony capitalism sucks. Real capitalism isn’t so bad but when you have businesses that underpay their employees and the government has to subsidize them with welfare, then those businesses are at fault.

    • The Real World

      Amy – your comments and Susan’s are the most valuable on this thread. And they represent the real world environment. It’s obvious there are a lot of non-business people commenting here, as always. (their pie-in-the-sky “solutions” are a dead giveaway.)

      The writing is very much on the wall and it never ceases to amaze me how many are so slow to see it. There will be increased automation in the restaurant business. Frankly, in a casual place, being able to order from an i-pad-type device would suit me fine and paying through it would be advantageous too. So, that leaves cooks and, in some cases, servers. Automation is the thing that’s going “to give” more so than higher wages. Reality……

      • Lulz

        A lot of owners don’t actually run the business. They pass it on to managers. And many times the managers are incompetent. And the owners themselves aren’t familiar with the inner workings of a restaurant as they have no real experience in it.

        The owner up above complains that they have to wash dishes. She doesn’t realize she’s washing HER dishes. Lead by example. That is woefully lacking in most jobs as the owners somehow assume just because they’re giving someone a job, that person in turn owes them their lives. Doesn’t work that way especially as the incentives aren’t there. You own a business, don’t complain when you have to work it.

      • Lulz

        As an example, the old Hannah Flanagans downtown is where I saw the lowest sanitation score ever. A grade C with a 72. And that was due to absentee owner allowing the business to be ran by an incompetent manager and losing control of his staff.

    • Lulz

      LOL, you had to wash YOUR dishes and you complain about it. And if you close your business to attend a funeral, is that like the end of the world for YOU or your employees? Obviously they don’t care whether you make it or don’t. I imagine it’s because they really don’t lose much if you do shut down. /if you really think about it, all you’re competing with is another restaurant for the same pool of law wage earners. But you’re stuck because your livelihood is on the line, not theirs. I’d be thankful they do show up. And consider some incentives to keep them motivated instead of merely thinking they should be grateful you gave them a job. And if you can’t afford it, then you yourself need to work it until a point is reached where you can. That’s the nature of the beast YOU signed up for.

  7. Jason

    The wage issue is where government needs to intervene; every other industrialized nation regulates to a much higher standard of living to where people are paid higher (ex. Australia has a 20$ minimum wage)
    Henry Ford said it best; ” pay your employees enough to where they can afford the goods and services that they provide.”

    • Lulz

      Australia ships back their illegals. You fools welcome them with open arms. The true costs of allowing open immigration is either ignored or purposely denied.

      • Jason

        Oh and the other side of the isle doesn’t welcome them with open arms; enslaving them for their cheap labor ??
        It would certainly seem it’s they who benefit the most from said cheap labor; hence the GOP infighting

        • Lulz

          Then don’t compare us to Australia.

          Cheap labor benefits no one. Wall Street votes majority democrat if you look at donations. GOP are sellouts just as are the left. Both are full of traitors and criminals. I am neither a believer in any politician or political party. They can all rot in hell.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.