After a devastating collapse of the restaurant industry in the pandemic, service industry jobs are finally approaching pre-COVID numbers. However, restaurateurs are having unprecedented difficulty hiring, especially for the kitchen. The common refrain is that people don’t want to work anymore, but unemployment is lower in Oregon than it was before the pandemic. So where did the cooks go?
Staffing a kitchen has always been a difficult task, and compensation has never driven kitchen work’s appeal. The hours are demanding, the pay historically hovers around minimum wage, and landing a job as a cook requires a good amount of prior experience. Pay has increased by more than a dollar per hour (inflation adjusted) since 2019, according to Oregon’s employment department. But the same is true for most other jobs. Restaurateurs are posting job advertisements with more transparency than ever about hours, benefits, and compensation. And people working in restaurants say they’re able to maintain a healthier work-life balance. Simultaneously, restaurant cook positions are among the highest job vacancies in the state. Restaurants are operating with skeleton crews, perpetually hiring, and stretching their financial limits in order to draw talent. The numbers point to many folks leaving the industry for higher-paying jobs in different fields.
(The shortage applies to all restaurant workers, but statistically cooks are most in need.)
Blaise Belfiglio has been cooking in Portland since 2015. He first landed a job as prep cook at the Nines Hotel. For three years, he earned minimum wage. Then he moved to the cocktail bar Box Social on N Williams, where his pay steadily increased over four years, to $16.50 per hour. Then COVID hit.
Belfiglio’s salary pre-COVID was slightly above industry averages at the time, says Anna Johnson, a senior economic analyst in Oregon’s employment department. Adjusted for inflation, the annual average starting rate for a cook in Oregon in 2019 was $16.46. Today, it’s $17.80. While the increase is real, and slightly higher than the increase in the statewide average, cooks' salaries are still about $4 lower than the average pay of all jobs.
The increase, Johnson says, is “not unique to cooks, and it’s not unique to the restaurant industry. It’s happening everywhere right now. And so, not only do you have a lot of options for what restaurant you want to work at, you have options in other industries, too.”
Like many restaurant workers, Belfiglio received unemployment benefits during the shutdown. Paying more than $1,000 per week while the federal supplement was in effect, “unemployment was way more than my paycheck,” he says.
That financial room to breathe allowed a first-ever moment of professional pause for many cooks, perhaps to contemplate new career directions, or to seek a more sustainable and financially secure job within the restaurant industry. Critics mark this as the turning point; they credit unemployment payouts with an increase in job vacancies. Belfiglio sees it as a restructuring of power. “It’s a buyer’s market,” he says.
Johnson says that in 2019 Oregon had an average of 1,000 job vacancies for restaurant cooks. For the first two quarters of 2022, vacancies fluctuated around four times the pre-COVID figure.
“In 2019, we were saying kind of the same general statements: tight labor market, unemployment is really low, most people who want a job have a job. And we’re saying those same things now, except we have way more job vacancies than we did before,” says Johnson.
Kyle Reaves spent the five years leading up to COVID cooking at Ava Gene’s, the now-closed Italian restaurant on SE Division. When he first moved to town from Birmingham, Alabama, in 2014, he applied to as many restaurants as he could. For a while, he held down two jobs: a few shifts a week at Lardo, and some at the Basque bar Oso Market (in the space that’s now Lulu Bar on Grand). Beating out five other applicants, Reaves eventually landed his gig at Ava Gene’s, line cooking for minimum wage.
Before COVID, 82 percent of restaurant cook jobs were advertised as requiring prior experience; today, only 63 percent do. But it’s not that cooking in restaurants miraculously got easier. Restaurants are forced to hire cooks with less experience in order to keep their kitchens staffed. In 2019, almost three quarters of restaurant cook job vacancies were reported as difficult to fill. But currently, 92 percent are reported as such. Overwhelmingly, Johnson says, the struggle of hiring restaurant cooks has been attributed to a lack of applicants.
Reaves climbed the ranks at Ava Gene’s over the next half decade and eventually earned a $50,000 salary as kitchen manager. But within two weeks of the COVID shutdown, he applied to work at the post office. He had friends who'd made the transition from the kitchen to mail carrying before, and with no restaurant work prospects on the horizon and a mortgage and a car payment to mind, he was eager to make a career change.
Two years into his postal career, Reaves earns almost double what he ever made cooking. The change in income has changed his life, and he struggles to see a situation that would bring him back into the kitchen, even though it’s what he truly wants to be doing.
“There are so many things that I miss about the kitchen industry that you just don't get anywhere else,” says Reaves. “But it does kind of come down to a financial issue.”
“I definitely have some conflicted feelings about what the structure of restaurants would need to change to be something that's viable for cooks in the future,” he adds.
When Belfiglio set out to get back into the kitchen in February of this year, he responded to an ad on the popular restaurant-industry classifieds website Poached.com. It was for a line cook job at Toki, Han Oak’s casual downtown sister restaurant. The pay was in line with growing industry averages, but that was the case with a lot of the openings. When asked why Toki, Belfiglio says, “I had eaten here before. It’s really good food. It’s fun.”
This marks another shift in job prospects for cooks. Pre-COVID, generally speaking, the more accolades a restaurant held, the less attractive it was to work at financially. You could either pick a job that was going to create a financial strain, but was going to be exciting and inspiring (usually at a smaller, independent restaurant), or a job that was financially stable-ish, but less inspiring (usually a corporate restaurant with less autonomy for cooks). Now, restaurants have to be both exciting and stable in order to attract employees.
Regardless of it being a buyer’s market, with a smaller pool to draw from even the highest-regarded restaurants like Toki struggle to hire cooks. “We still have trouble getting people to come in [to apply for a job], despite the fact that we’re making headlines, and we’re in articles and stuff,” says Belfiglio.
Does being a cook feel more sustainable today? “Yeah. I feel like it would be very hard for me to feel like I need to work two jobs anymore,” says Belfiglio, who recounts several coworkers driving for Uber in their off hours prepandemic.
“I think that’s because people are finding jobs really easily,” he adds. “They don’t feel like they’re pressured to take the first thing that they find.”
Job prospects that were once fought over are now left vacant. Higher wages in other fields and the stability that comes with them are hard to ignore. If the pandemic has resulted in one thing for cooks, it’s options.