Vermont restaurants need help

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with a 2.1 percent unemployment rate, Vermont has reached the lowest in the country.

Having a low unemployment rate sounds like it would be a good thing; however, this is not the case for restaurant owners. Chefs everywhere throughout the Vermont area are struggling to find hardworking competent workers.

It isn’t easy work being in a hot kitchen all day. “It’s hard work, and not to mention it’s dangerous. Cooking takes a special type of person,” Cameron Keys, the Chef at El Cortijo Winooski says. That being said: where are these special types of people and why are they hard to find?

Phillip Claytons, head chef of the Farmhouse Group in Vermont, whose job entails overseeing five restaurants located in the Burlington area, El Cortijo (Winooski and Burlington), Pascolo, The Guild, Farmhouse and Bliss Bee, spoke about this problem. “It’s remarkable how hard it is to hire someone. I hired someone to work at the Guild, and they didn’t show up to their first day of work. Yes, the pay for the back of house employees isn’t great, but we are competitive. It keeps me up at night wondering what else I can offer my staff. We thrive off incentives here at the Farmhouse group,” says Clayton.

The Farmhouse group offers gift cards for employees on their birthdays. The Farmhouse group also gives employees the opportunity to win Employee of the Month.

If you are a full-time employee, health insurance is also offered. “State law does not require employers to offer group healthcare insurance to their employees,” states the Vermont Employee handbook’s laws.

The Farmhouse group is not the only restaurant to be affected by this staff shortage. Burlington’s Citizen Cider faces similar issues. Dylan Wing, the head chef at Citizen Cider, admits that he would hire someone with no cooking experience at all. “If they are willing to learn and have a history of good work ethic in other jobs, then why not? I have people come in with loads of experience, and don’t last more than a week,” he said.

So what does this say about the restaurant business in Vermont?
This year in Burlington, The Scuffer restaurant has already gone under. Seven Days also reported on Oct. 30 that the Daily Planet in Burlington has failed to be sold and will be closing its doors indefinitely. These have been long lasting restaurants in Burlington.

Restaurant owner Liza O’Brien has faced similar problems recently. Once the owner of the Wooden Spoon, she now owns a restaurant on the corner of St. Paul and Maple Street called Gastro Grub.

Gastro Grub is a small restaurant that consist of a single bartender and cook. “Even with only needing two employees, I still find it hard to maintain a consistent staff. We don’t offer health insurance, but I would like to think we pay enough to get them what they need,” she reports.

The minimum wage in Vermont is 10.78, reports. “We don’t believe in a minimum wage here, I would like to think we are past that,” Clayton states. When walking around Church Street, there are signs for “help wanted” in restaurants such as Ken’s Pizza, offering $14 an hour as a start for any line cook.
Michael Burnett, from New Jersey, has been cooking all over Burlington for the past 10 years. “You’re not going to get paid much more than that, it doesn’t matter how long you have been cooking for, if you don’t like to cook then I suggest you do something else,” he says.

“Ten years ago I would have never faced this issue. We still have people who have been working with us from the start. It is crazy how I have slowly watched this unfold,” Clayton says.

So what does the future hold? Are we looking at a dying industry here in Northern Vermont, or will this pass?

Vermont is known as the second least densely populated state with Wyoming being number one. Is there simply not enough people to fill these positions, or are the young simply moving away?

Church Street used to be the home of the New England Culinary Institute closed back in 2005, and their Essex location did as well in 2009.

“I hate to say it, but the restaurant industry is full of burnouts. There are some people who just wait their turn to get into another restaurant and can’t handle it. It’s sad, but I personally have witnessed cooks in this vicious cycle. They get a job, burn the bridge, and move on,” Wing said.

The staff shortage does not only apply to the back of house, but in the front of house as well. “The front of house faces staff shortages frequently as well, but for different reasons. It doesn’t have as much to do with a lack of people who want to work, it has to do with a lack of people can work. For example, El Cortijo is a very fast-paced restaurant. We want people in and out as fast as possible, we don’t even do reservations,” Clayton says.

St. Paul Street Gastro Grub owner and front-end manager also deals with similar issues. “Being that there is only one bartender and server here at Gastro Grub I find it almost impossible to find someone who is capable, but if you are capable of it, is good money,” he says.

“I often find people who want the job, but not many who can keep it, at times it is extremely overwhelming.” “Vermont is a desirable destination, for many reasons, food included,” he said, “hopefully we can keep it alive.”