On the Fort Point Channel area’s emerging restaurant scene, people like James Bourassa are in high demand. The 27-year-old line cook jumped last fall from Blue Dragon to Pastoral, where he manages the pasta and dessert station. Though he’s not looking for another change, eateries are scrambling to lure workers like him, he says.
“If I was in the job market, I could have another job within a week,” he said.
The search for chefs, line cooks, and prep workers is a struggle not only in the Fort Point section of South Boston, where at least seven restaurants have opened in the past two years, but across the state. Some owners are offering to help find affordable housing for employees or giving up-and-coming chefs the creative reins. One restaurant is even offering to pay off new hires’ culinary school debts.
It’s a far cry from the recessionary days of 2009, when unemployment neared 9 percent in Massachusetts and jobless restaurant workers lined up outside places that were hiring. The unemployment rate fell to 4.6 percent in June, and overall wages are rising faster in Massachusetts than in the nation as a whole, pulling workers away from the generally lower-paying restaurant sector.
“We have over 15,000 restaurants in Massachusetts, said Robert Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. Excluding family-run restaurants, “it’s a pretty safe bet that not one is fully staffed today.”
Chris Coombs, the owner of three Boston establishments, Deuxave in the Back Bay for French dining, dbar in Dorchester, and Boston Chops in the South End, is looking for nine chefs and cooks.
At his flagship Deuxave, he is offering to pay $1,000 a month toward the student loans of hires who make it through a three-month probationary period. He said he got the idea earlier this year after a promising candidate for a chef’s job at his restaurant said she needed to earn enough to pay off $120,000 in student-loan debt from Johnson & Wales University in Providence. She ultimately accepted a more lucrative job at Disney World.
“That’s where the fundamentals of our business are broken,” Coombs said. “A four-year degree can cost upwards of $100,000 and the entry level of industry is $25,000 and $35,000. It’s quite simply an equation that doesn’t work.”
Chefs said they covet talented employees as well as beginners who are willing to learn. And they rely heavily on their current staff to recruit new employees as well as websites such as Boston Chefs, Craigslist, or the ironically named Poached Jobs.
There are pages of advertisements on Poached Boston, from a sous chef position at Salty Pig in the Back Bay to a line cook at Fairsted Kitchen in Brookline. “Work hard play hard, you know the drill!!!!” the Fairsted ad reads.
Some owners said they continually advertise, because the average tenure of a worker can be relatively brief at just a year or less.
“People migrate from restaurant to restaurant when they’re not happy or want to learn something new,” said Todd Winer, chef and owner of Pastoral, who said he has helped some employees find affordable housing, a key problem in a city with fast-rising rents.
Bourassa, the line cook at Pastoral, said he’s learning valuable skills from Winer and the Pastoral staff and making ends meet by living in a Dorchester rooming house for $600 a month.
And owners will go to great lengths to keep the loyalty of talented veteran staffers. Bergamot owner Keith Pooler decided a good way to retain his protege and chef de cuisine, Dan Bazzinotti, was to open a second restaurant called BISq in Cambridge and make him the executive chef.
Pooler said the surge in new restaurants, combined with the long hours and typically low pay, particularly for entry-level workers, has made the hiring problem acute in recent months. But he said it has always been difficult for kitchen staff to watch a restaurants’ servers, for example, walk away from a night with a thick wad of cash while line cooks might work 12 to 14 hours days for less.
Restaurants may have to start charging more or find ways to use technology to cut costs.
“The job’s just hard,” Pooler said. “I don’t think the long hours and the low wages can continue.”
Yet the shortages have not deterred young entrepreneurs like Matt Cunningham, a 32-year-old chef known for his “pop-up” restaurants who is undertaking his first stand-alone restaurant in Jamaica Plain. Called Pink Samurai, it is a “craft dumpling house” serving small plates and homemade fare.
Cunningham needs to hire about eight kitchen workers before he opens next month. After an initial surge of resumes in response to advertisements, he said, he now gets about six a week. He hasn’t hired anyone so far, but he’s not worried. Not yet.
“I still have a little time,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the last name of Robert Luz.