It’s both bizarre and sweet respite to read about an issue that is at the forefront of my life these days [“Falling Short: What’s Causing Asheville’s Restaurant Labor Crisis?” Aug. 23, Xpress]. I’m new to Asheville, but I’ve jumped into the deep end of the city’s restaurant and hospitality labor crisis since I moved here in April 2017. For the past five months, I’ve been at A-B Tech developing a course for GED-seeking and ESL students who are interested in working in the hotel and restaurant industry in Asheville. My goal is to prepare my students for entry-level or mid-level positions in the industry and to help them reach their academic goals. On top of all of this, I’m also a waitress at a local independent restaurant because, let’s be real, I need to pay my bills, and the struggling restaurant industry still pays better than education.
As I was developing the course, I met with and interviewed countless hotel administrators, restaurant managers,and professionals in North Carolina’s workforce development groups (i.e., Green Opportunities and Goodwill that offer courses and support for people who want to work in restaurants and hotels). The consensus, according to leadership: People lack a solid work ethic. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “If you teach them the soft skills (show up, wear the appropriate attire and treat each other with respect), we can do the rest.” My task quickly went from teaching knife skills and units of measurement to teaching students how to be more professional, have a positive attitude, and how to show up and keep showing up.
In my own restaurant, we seemingly grapple with the same issues. We can’t keep a dishwasher longer than a month. It seems inevitable that one day they’ll just stop showing up, and the hunt for a back-of-house employee begins again. Most of them seem unprepared for such a demanding job, or they don’t care to show up regularly, which ultimately supports the poor-work ethic opinion.
No doubt, the problem is vastly complicated, without even mentioning the prevalence of drugs and inflated egos that inevitably seep into kitchens, or the lack of migrant workers who are willing to succumb to low wages and long hours. But, I just can’t accept that work ethic is the only issue at hand.
I had my students read and discuss your article in class. We tried to identify, for ourselves, what the central issue might be. The consensus, according to my students: There needs to be equal treatment of front-of-house employees and back-of-house employees. I quite agree with them. You can’t tell me that good service isn’t just as important as eating off of clean dishes. Once we acknowledge that those back-of-house “dish-pit” employees are just as important (if not more) than the young and sprightly servers in the front of house, we can begin to change the climate and move the industry and the hard-working people of Asheville forward.
As chef Michel Baudouin once explained to me, “We must recognize that we are one team, the front of house is the offense and the back of house is the defense, and everyone has a valuable role to play in the game.” Once we accept that each person is crucial to our success, we can respect each other as equals and work better together. Interestingly enough, chef Baudouin’s dishwasher is one of his most loyal long-term employees, working for him for almost 15 years.
— Vanessa Gonzalez Nieto