When the conditions are so bad, it’s no wonder restaurant workers are skipping out on their job interviews

OPINION: The hospitality industry is facing a new crisis: job candidate and employee no-shows. And before you ask: no, it isn’t just millennials
By Corey Mintz - Published on May 2, 2017
a restaurant kitchen with prepped food but no workers
Restaurant owners haven't seen anything like it: they'll often book 10 job interviews for prospective chefs, only to have two or three candidates actually show up. (atm2003/iStock)

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Not showing up is one of our most beloved pastimes. And our society’s passion for absenteeism shows no signs of slowing down.

Deadbeat dads not paying child support were pioneers in the field of not showing up. Then there was ghosting, the method of breaking up with someone you’re dating by just ignoring their texts. In the restaurant world, the popular trend of making multiple reservations and only showing up for the one you want has become a plague, hitting profits as hosts hold tables for diners who aren’t coming.

The latest advancement in the growth industry of disrespecting other people’s time: cooks not showing up for job interviews they’ve scheduled.

“Seventy-five percent of booked interviews don't show or bother to call,” says Susan Merry, owner of food consultancy The Merry Corp and former partner at All the Best Fine Foods.

The first couple of times I heard this from chefs or owners I thought they were just venting, or engaging in the millennial-bashing that’s such a favoured patsy argument among parents, employers, and baby boomer columnists.

But then I heard it again, and again, and again. Dozens of times.

David Lee, chef/partner of Nota Bene and Carbon Bar in Toronto, estimates that three out of 10 interviewees will show up, as opposed to a decade ago, when it was 10 out of 10. One restaurateur described it as “a pleasant surprise” when someone actually showed up for an interview.

But the problem doesn’t end there: many say that when they do hire someone, it’s common for that person to not show up for their first day of work, or quit without notice.

“I once set up 12 interviews, for which only one guy showed up,” says Robert Maxwell, owner of The Beech Tree in Toronto. “When I first opened three years ago, I posted the head chef's position on Craigslist. I got about 20 resumes. From that I arranged for interviews with eight. Two showed up. One of the no-shows was a freakin' Food Network chef. His show had been cancelled and he was back in the job market. No phone call, no email. Nothing.”

And it’s not just a big Toronto thing. I’ve had chefs/owners in Lindsay, Oshawa, and out of province say the same thing. Nor is it a restaurant-specific problem, though people who’ve been in multiple fields say it is often worse within hospitality.

“I've worked in a few different industries and a few different provinces,” says Natasha Bartlett, general manager of Auberge inn thyme in Shediac, Nova Scotia. “I have seen an increase in interview cancellations across the board. However I have only really experienced no-shows with no notice in the restaurant, retail, and hospitality industries. In my experience it is not a Toronto-centric issue, nor is it unique to any one generation. I have also seen no shows for paid training and even after accepted job offers. I'm honestly not sure of the cause.”

Everyone agrees it wasn’t always this way.

In the olden days you had to go to a restaurant to hand them a resume. Being able to send 20 at a time changed the game.


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What we also didn’t have in the past was Facebook, Tinder, and a whole supportive network of technologies that now help us keep human interaction at arm’s length. Without devolving into a “kids these days” argument (because really, everyone’s standards are eroding), we are all burdened with an overabundance of choice and an ease of non-commitment. Even Facebook, not exactly a bellwether of social responsibility, used to ask “yes, no, or maybe” for event attendance. Now they have a tab for “interested.” Our swipe-left culture allows us to collect as many options as possible — for work, play, romance — and only choose one (or none) at the last minute.

But let’s not blame technology entirely. In hospitality, it’s also a reflection of the state of the industry.

There has been a shortage of cooks for some time, which makes a seller’s market. In a different field, cooks would use the advantage, the increased demand and lack of supply of skilled labour, to hold out for more money. But restaurant economics don’t allow for that. Despite high demand, applicants are still being offered unlivable wages and being asked to work free trial shifts. So acting out, treating potential employers with the same lack of respect with which workers have been treated, is natural. Two wrongs don’t make a right in a restaurant any more than elsewhere. But they at least make sense of a phenomenon.

“I just came back from an Ontario Meat Packers annual general meeting and this was pretty much what was talked about,” says Darryl Koster, owner of Buster Rhino’s Southern BBQ in Oshawa and Whitby, plus a meat-packing plant. “If we ask 25 people to come in, we might get three that show up.”

“Despite what you may hear today, it's not a generational thing. It's not those ‘horrible’ millennials. It’s everyone. We tried hiring just from older generations — mine, 35 to 50. They don't show up just as much.”

Koster has found that asking potential employees if anyone in their families are self-employed has helped zero in on applicants with a sense of work ethic and responsibility. Another chef says she’s been able to mitigate time loss through open calls (like asking all job candidates to come within a two-hour period) and even messaging interviewees reminders on the day.

Logan Prong found the open-call helped turnout when hiring for front of house at Souke Taboule in Toronto. “In one week I scheduled 25 interviews for specific times. Two showed up. One emailed saying they couldn't make it. The following week I asked 15 people to ‘drop in’ between designated hours. Five showed up. It seemed like if there was less pressure to meet a specific time, they were more likely to show up.”

The coddling of applicants may be hard a hard pill to swallow. But if employers don’t like that, they’re going to hate Dyson Forbes’ suggestion.

“When looking for work becomes a numbers game, personal niceties and basic respect go out the window,” says the manager of marketing and sales for Forbes Wild Foods. “People often shotgun a bunch of resumes out to cover as many bases as possible.”

He proposes that instead of blaming applicants, employers might ask themselves how effectively they are appealing to talented workers. “What could you do better to attract folks? Did you offer TTC fare, a snack or a sample of the kind of food you folks make? Does your posting mention any perks for working with you or does it read like another one-sided opportunity that pays some meager amount?”

It may gall some employers to have to bribe applicants with food. But in a field where people are routinely expected to work for low wages because of their passion for food, it seems reasonable to share some of that as an enticement.

And as long as we’re sharing blame, many restaurants don’t share basic information in job postings. It’s common for employment ads to leave out the name or location of a restaurant in favour of vague posts like “FOH help needed for restaurant in west toronto” or "cooks needed for upscale Italian” — yet another way prospective workers feel like they face demands and conventions that wouldn’t be acceptable in other industries.

Restaurants, you’re not the CIA. You can tell people who you are. And you can tell people what you’re paying, too. When a corporation has wiggle room over a six-figure salary for an executive position, there’s a reason to be cagey. But when you’re paying between $12 and $15 an hour, just spit out that that’s your range. To a lot of cooks, one dollar more or less an hour is going to be a dealmaker, or breaker.

Job applicants not showing up for scheduled interviews may be frustrating and confounding. But it’s not a mystery. It’s another unsurprising symptom (see: battle over tips, cook labour shortage, rising meat prices) of an industry struggling against economic realities which keep employees at a disadvantage. 

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