It’s a typical late afternoon in the kitchen at the Hyatt Regency Boston, and line cook Edgar Valenzuela is hunched over a grill, gingerly flipping shrimp in a pan filled with crackling olive oil and butter. It’s scampi, his favorite dish.
Next to Valenzuela, executive chef Kelly Armetta showboats by filling a pan with oil that sputters loudly and bursts into flames, before he grins and snuffs it out.
They make their jobs look easy, but it’s a high-pressure environment. Everyone needs to know what they’re doing.
To find skilled hands when the kitchen is short-staffed — a problem endemic to the restaurant industry these days — the hotel has started scheduling shifts exclusively through Instawork, a San Francisco-based gig app that has begun building relationships with restaurants and bars in and around Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. over the past few months as it prepares to make its East Coast debut.
Instawork posts shifts that hospitality workers — including servers, chefs, dishwashers, and bartenders — can pick up at bars, restaurants, and cafes.
Valenzeula works full time at the Hyatt Regency, but uses the app to pick up shifts in other kitchens on his days off.
“I love it,” he said. “I go in to cook in the yacht club in Marblehead. People pay $32, $37 [per hour] just for cooking hot dogs and hamburgers.”
Instawork was founded in 2015 in San Francisco, and has slowly added cities on the West Coast and in the Midwest.
“The biggest challenge is hiring a great team that’s thousands of miles away from headquarters that matches our values, matches our playbook,” said Instawork chief executive Sumir Meghani.
A rival app, Pared, is already operating in New York and Washington. But Instawork is beating Pared to the punch in Boston, where several users had downloaded the app even before it was technically in business here.
“In the early days, we were getting bad reviews saying, ‘Hey, there’s no gigs in Boston!’ ” Meghani said. “That was a great time to follow what our users [were] saying and launch.”
Instawork has partnered with the Hyatt Regency Boston and the New England Aquarium.
The business model has the potential to replace local temp agencies — which is how kitchens have traditionally compensated for short-staffing on short notice — much in the same way that Uber and Lyft eroded the taxi industry.
“When I did staffing before, I used to have to call people, or e-mail them and say, ‘I want 10 servers for blah-blah day’ and whatever,” said Amy Brown, who runs catering operations at the New England Aquarium for the Patina Restaurant Group.
“With Instawork, I actually go online. I’m not a phone person at all.”
Temp agencies that have lost business to Instawork did not respond to requests for comment.
Workers who use the app build profiles showing their work history, certifications, references, and ratings from previous gigs. That information provides businesses looking for workers the ability to make better-informed selections.
Instawork “gave me an opportunity to tap into a resource that I normally wouldn’t,” said Armetta, the Hyatt’s executive chef. The workers he gets through Instawork are “professional cooks that work in restaurants, as opposed to cooks that are possibly working in hotels, or cooks that were only working for a temp agency and are just looking for work.”
Also like Uber and Lyft, workers who use the app are considered contractors, not employees. That means they don’t have benefits or the ability to bargain for themselves collectively, which has drawn criticism from labor groups.
“This is just another tool in the race to the bottom battle,” said Massachusetts AFL-CIO president Steven A. Tolman in a statement, “and another example of the gig economy taking advantage of workers.”
But Richard Freeman, a Harvard University economist who has written about the gig economy, faults local unions and agencies for failing to adapt to the times.
“If this is a reasonably run app . . . I don’t know what one would be upset about,” Freeman said. “If I’m a temp agency, fine, OK. I’d better get my temp agency to be more efficient or go into some other business.”
For workers such as Adil Atifi, who is a cook, the Instawork app allows them to work in kitchens they would never be in otherwise.
Atifi said he found himself in a tough spot after losing his job in a North End restaurant for staying too long in Morocco to care for his sick father. In need of cash, he took an Instawork gig grilling fish at an event for the Hyatt Regency Boston.
“I saw how the crew was,” Atifi said. “I saw how comfortable it was working here.”
Atifi impressed the staff by grilling 100 pounds of fish in an hour, and Armetta offered him a job a few days later. Atifi was waiting for a position in another hotel kitchen, but decided he liked the environment of Armetta’s kitchen more.
“I took actually even less money and stayed here,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Must be a reason, me being here.’ It was almost like fate.”