Jeremy Leinen, CEC, Executive Chef of Dunwoody CC, says chefs must begin thinking like engineers, being strategic and systems-oriented in pursuit of efficiency.
Much has been discussed lately about the labor market in our industry and the rising wage expectations. Cooks aren’t going to work for what they used to. Honestly, good for them. As much of a proponent as I am of paying skilled professionals a respectable wage, I don’t hide from the ripple effect that will follow. Kitchen payroll going up by 20% or more will have consequences.
For many, the knee-jerk response is simply to point out that restaurant prices will have to increase. While this is part of the equation, it’s pretty small-minded thinking to expect that to be the beginning and end of the conversation. Far more will have to change than just prices to adjust to rising wages. For much of the industry, adapting to more efficient service models will be the ticket to survival in this new era. Quick service restaurants will get to be more and more prevalent, as they lend to very efficient operations. There are quick service options for many varieties of food offerings, and this has been the fastest-growing segment of the industry for several years. More and more specialized quick-service restaurant concepts are bound to pop up.
Restaurant groups are likely to get to be more and more successful, as having multiple locations in a metro area with the bulk of prep production coming from a commissary kitchen makes these concepts that much more efficient to operate. These same restaurant groups contracting with companies for custom product development will also lessen the production load. Additionally, the rise of automation and robotics will make much of the daily prep work less reliant on humans, reducing labor by eliminating many mundane prep tasks.
The presence of technology could make the traditional dining experience a much more of a niche offering. At some point, probably a long way off, the human interaction-driven experience that we’re used to will likely be reserved for very upscale dining. With the shift over the past few years toward quick-casual, this will only continue after the pandemic. The pandemic taught us to limit human interaction and order from our phones via QR code. Wages have to go up, but that also means restaurants will likely have to figure out how to operate with fewer people. That sounds shrewd at first, but it’s not so bad since the industry can’t find people to fill the jobs. With that in mind, this could work out for everyone involved.
All that said, clubs rarely operate like the rest of the foodservice industry. Expectations are very different, with clubs being very “high touch” environments. Clubs tend to be late adopters of technology and some of the last to jump on trends. I don’t see robots replacing cooks in club kitchens any time soon. Clubs tend to be inherently inefficient with special menus, mise en place on the line to accommodate one special request, etc. The model I mentioned above for quick service concepts wouldn’t translate very well to clubs.
That said, clubs will have to navigate the financial issue of rising wages just like everybody else. Some clubs may be able to simply raise dues to offset the costs, but it’s probably not that simple for many. Somehow, some clubs will have to figure out how to operate with fewer people. This likely means a change in expectations somewhere. After all, at some point members can’t have what they’re not willing to pay for. Once the threshold is reached for what the budget allows for, some compromise will have to happen.
Clubs typically try to operate as being everything for everybody all at once. If it becomes necessary to reduce staff to afford higher wages, clubs may have to be more strategic in their offering. As we’re navigating the current circumstances and planning our moves, some of these short-term fixes may be a part of the long-term strategy. For example, we’ll likely be offering limited a la carte menus during the week to only have to open 3 stations instead of 5, thereby allowing us to operate with fewer cooks. Doing these types of adjustments and perhaps rotating limited menus and theme nights to present different options each day could be a viable future strategy if necessary.
Obviously, we’re all up to our neck dealing with the circumstances right now, but we have to think further down the line. I don’t believe for even a second that all of this is just going away in a few months after the pandemic is declared officially over. Call it “new normal,” as much as we’re all tired of hearing that phrase, but we’re not going back to the way it was. The future of being a Chef is going to demand thinking like an engineer, being strategic and systems-oriented in pursuit of efficiency. The sooner we start adapting, the sooner we can be in a position to thrive rather than merely stay above water.