There are plenty of eye-popping numbers behind Eataly, the high-profile, Mario Batali-attached food emporium preparing to make its much-anticipated entrance into Boston in November.
There’s the $30 million cost of the project. And the 44,000 square feet of space the market will occupy, an area large enough to have once housed the entirety of The Shops at Prudential Center food court.
For many in the local restaurant industry, however, it’s another figure that’s generating attention, and worry. That number is 600 — as in, the number of employees Eataly hopes to hire in the coming weeks.
With Boston in the midst of a massive shortage of food-industry workers, the influx of 600 new jobs threatens to deplete an already small pool of workers.
“It spreads what’s already in short supply even thinner,” said Jason Santos, a Boston restaurateur who plans to open his new Back Bay restaurant, Buttermilk and Bourbon, around the same time Eataly debuts.
Said Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, “It’ll obviously exacerbate what is already a very delicate ecosystem as it is today. There’s no question it’s going to have an impact.”
Local restaurant owners have struggled mightily in recent years to keep their establishments staffed. And while Eataly’s arrival would seem to be a boon for the local job market — for comparison, General Electric’s recent arrival will bring somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 to 800 jobs — actually filling those positions could be a tall task.
“I have trouble finding two [employees]; they’re looking for 600,” says Santos. “I’m sure whoever’s in charge of that is probably a little sick to their stomach right now.”
The restaurant-staff shortage is by no means a new problem, here or in other cities. Long before Eataly began hiring for its Boston operation, local restaurant owners were strapped for bodies. It’s the result of a convergence of factors: a public transportation system that isn’t conducive to the late nights and early mornings typically required in restaurant work; and the rise of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, which often pluck from a similar pool of job candidates.
And with the average Boston line cook making roughly $13 an hour, according to one estimate, wages often fail to match the city’s skyrocketing rent and living costs.
Locally, evidence of the shortage is everywhere. In June, Ames Street Deli and the adjacent Study in Cambridge merged to become a single restaurant, which closed a few weeks later; a rep for the restaurant cited the city’s lack of staff as one reason.
According to Santos, one high-end restaurant was recently forced to close on a Thursday night due to a lack of cooks.
Even successful operators have opted not to open new restaurants for fear they’ll be unable to staff them.
For its part, Eataly seems to understand the difficulty of the task at hand, wasting no time canvassing the city for potential workers.
Company representatives have met with John Barros, chief of economic development for the city, to discuss the idea of cosponsoring job fairs. Craigslist currently boasts various Eataly job listings, and there are plans, too, to work with career centers in the Boston area as a way to scout for staff.
“It’s not an easy task, when you’re hiring that many people,” said Cleo Clarke, vice president of human resources for Eataly’s North American operations. “I wish I could sit here and tell you that on opening day we will be fully staffed. It wouldn’t be a wise statement.”
On paper, Eataly has all the makings of an attractive place to work. With stateside locations already established in New York and Chicago, the company last year signed a 15-year lease at the Prudential Center to create an expansive marketplace that will include everything from quick-service restaurants to a culinary school (the company hasn’t yet released a full list of the shops and services that will be available).
In addition to the name recognition provided by celebrity chef Batali — who is also behind Seaport restaurant Babbo, opened last year — the company is widely viewed within the industry as a promising place for innovative, ambitious talent. This reputation is bolstered by a variety of employee perks, ranging from weekly staff breakfasts to free cooking courses.
“My sense of the culture of the group is that it’s certainly ambitious, it’s opportunity-laden for the people who work there, and there’s obviously great integrity in the product sourcing,” says Eli Feldman, cofounder of Clothbound, a mobile technology that matches restaurants and employees. “So I think there are certainly some very attractive elements.”
In the meantime, the team behind the business seems determined to quell any fears about the potential poaching of employees from other Boston-area restaurants.
“We don’t want to be that company that comes in and poaches from any specific area,” Clarke says. “For us, it’s important to cast a wide net, put it out that we’re here.
“The last thing we want to do is be that company that comes in and causes a disruption.”
Local restaurant owners have some concerns about the effects of a 600-person hiring frenzy, but they don’t foster ill will toward the newcomer. Staffing a restaurant, they say, is challenging with or without Eataly as competition.
“You don’t have the time, energy, or want to worry about people leaving,” says Rebecca Roth Gullo, who operates The Gallows, Blackbird Doughnuts, and Banyan Bar + Refuge. “You focus on the staff that you have and do the absolute best to keep them happy.”
Even in the North End, filled with workers well versed in Italian cuisine and seemingly ripe for recruitment, business owners don’t view Eataly as the enemy.
Says Frank DePasquale, who owns a collection of North End establishments including Bricco and Mare Oyster Bar, “I don’t think it’ll be a danger to us whatsoever.”
Indeed, Eataly’s imprint on the local employment market has thus far been minimal — as of last week, according to a company spokeswoman, only 40 or so positions had been filled, including higher-level jobs like general manager and recruiter.
But with a projected opening date in November, and a hiring process expected to soon ramp up, that number will quickly grow.
The question, of course, is how high.
“Will they achieve [their goal]? I have no doubt that they will, one way or another,” said Feldman of Clothbound. “But it’s going to be an enormous effort.”