Raleigh Restaurant Owners: Local restaurant surge causing quality staff shortage

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Photo courtesy of Centro Restaurant

For several years, newspapers, culinary blogs and other disseminators of food-related information have lauded the explosion of Raleigh’s restaurant scene. Many industry insiders continue to rank Raleigh amongst the top-five large markets in the nation for restaurant expansion.

At J. Betski’s, owner John Korzekwinski attributes several of his biggest challenges to Raleigh’s growth.

“Right now, there is all of this rapid development in Raleigh, and it is such a high-growth area,” said Korzekwinski. “When you’re doing fine dining on a reservation basis, getting people in and out of your restaurant on time can be a challenge. There’s a lot going on. The restaurant scene is growing, people don’t cook anymore, and you have to provide gracious service to all of these people.”

There are some reasons to be concerned that the growth will soon come to an end. Last year, a Washington Post article featured experts who identified a looming issue amidst the rapid increase of American restaurants. Restaurants were sprouting up at a rate that severely outpaced population growth, ultimately resulting in the closure of several restaurants. “Too many restaurants are chasing too few customer dollars,” one interviewee told The Post.

Centro owner Angela Salamanca speaks with customers.

While Raleigh appears to be somewhat insulated against this problem considering most projections forecast continued population growth in the area, several local restauranteurs are struggling with another difficulty owed to the surge in restaurant openings. Namely, there simply are not enough experienced and devoted restaurant staff to keep pace with the growth.

For Angela Salamanca, the owner of the Centro Mexican restaurant on S. Wilmington Street, maintaining her staff is not only her most stress-inducing challenge, but it is a challenge “across the board” for all of her restaurant-industry friends in Raleigh.

“With Raleigh, it’s becoming an increasing problem,” lamented Salamanca. “There is such a saturation of restaurants, and there simply aren’t enough quality candidates to do the job. There aren’t enough folks with experience, and even when there are it’s not easy to get them to commit to one place. They’ll walk the town to find what they consider to be a better situation for themselves. That’s their right, but it makes things extra challenging for the restaurants.”

One of the traits Salamanca believes many Raleigh-area restaurant workers lack is a foundational loyalty to the food industry.

“For me, the restaurant industry is my life choice,” said Salamanca. “It’s how I make a living and contribute to my community. For others, this is just a bridge to get to somewhere else. Right now, Raleigh isn’t a place where many people consider working at a restaurant to be their profession and lifestyle. This isn’t something that a lot of people invest themselves in. We’ve had great employees that moved on because life led to something greater for them, but others come in and work, then immediately see another opportunity and leave.”

Over at Vivace on Lassiter Hill Road, Executive Chef Ian Sullivan is experiencing the same problem. He points out that there are more restaurants opening in Raleigh than there are cooks to prepare the food.

“With so many places opening in the Raleigh area, it makes it harder to find the right staff and retain them,” said Sullivan. “I think there are just so many places that are opening up that people have so many options to decide where they want to work. Generally, you want other people to do well in this industry. The notability of the Triangle Area drives more people to start restaurants here, and I think it kind of helps everybody. Over time, I think the shortage of staff will start to change.”

Sullivan went on to say that his restaurant has fared rather well in retaining staff. He has managed to keep his core group of staff together by treating them well.

Courtesy of Bittersweet

Meanwhile, at Bittersweet on E. Martin Street, owner Kim Hammer agreed that staffing is a huge problem for every restaurant in Raleigh. She also pointed out how other byproducts of Raleigh’s population surge have contributed to the difficulty.

“[Staffing] has gotten particularly harder over the years as it has become more and more difficult for service industry people to find affordable housing even remotely close to downtown Raleigh,” explained Hammer. “Not to mention the challenge of (finding) affordable parking, especially for our daytime employees.”

According to an article published by the News & Observer in early 2020, Raleigh’s property value increased by 28 percent. A high demand for property and a supply shortage has resulted in price increases, which is stifling to low-wage workers.

In combatting these challenges, Hammer suggested methods for keeping quality staff members happy and engaged with their work.

“We are extremely committed to educating and supporting service industry professionals,” said Hammer. “People who love this industry as much as us, we want them to realize they can create lucrative careers with us. This is a challenge when it seems like they are being priced out of our neighborhood due to lack of affordable housing, healthcare, etc.”

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