A robust market has Baton Rouge restaurants rethinking back-of-the-house retention

For Kalurah Street Grill Executive Chef Kelley McCann, the fun part of opening the Perkins Road overpass area eatery in early January was crafting an original menu and nailing down the restaurant’s “New American” culinary theme.

But as Business Report details in a feature from the current issue, the higher stakes part was finding the right people to fill about 20 back-of-the-house positions, including salaried sous chefs, hourly line cooks and dishwashers.

McCann, the former executive chef at Galatoire’s Bistro, is a bootstrap cook who never went to culinary school, working his way up over the last 14 years from what was then a common starting point—washing dishes. McCann says building a consistent labor force in the kitchen is one of the most important parts of the job. Today, it’s also one of the trickiest.

“The market certainly is tight,” says McCann. “A lot of things have to happen to ensure you have the right team in place, and passion for the job is really important in a scratch kitchen like ours.”

While restaurants are one of the biggest employers in the nation, hiring staff for a restaurant kitchen belies the hiring practices of most other businesses. Forget personality assessments and multistep interview processes. Instead, chefs like McCann say they hire by gut. They know who’s going to work out not so much by past experience as by attitude.

“I’m extremely picky about people,” says McCann. “I want somebody who comes in not bragging about all the stuff they’ve done but who wants to work and learn. We’ve been really lucky so far with who we’ve hired.”

Baton Rouge’s robust restaurant sector means more restaurants are vying for talent, prompting executive chefs, owners and managers to find new strategies for finding and retaining employees.

By nature, the field is prone to high turnover; the vast majority of kitchen positions are paid by the hour. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, restaurant cooks earned an average of $10.44 an hour—or just over $21,700 a year—in 2015. Median income for chefs in 2015 was $19.95 per hour, or $41,500 annually.

The food service workforce pipeline has changed in Baton Rouge. With no education requirements for entry level positions, restaurant kitchens are a natural onramp for unskilled workers who need a job or who are interested in working their way up in the field. Meanwhile, schools like the Louisiana Culinary Institute, Baton Rouge Community College and Virginia College are turning out a steady stream of students equipped with culinary degrees. LCI requires that students also complete internships or apprenticeships with partner restaurants.

“The landscape is so different from where it was five to 10 years ago,” says Jeremy Langlois, president of the Baton Rouge Chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association and executive chef at White Oak Plantation. “There are a lot of interesting chef-driven restaurants that do really great food, but with that kind of shift, it may be getting harder to find the right people.”

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