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From cooks to dishwashers, Buffalo restaurants struggle to find the staff they need

With the regional unemployment rate falling to an 18-year low, the struggle to find skilled hands is hampering a sector of the economy that’s already been feeling the pinch for years: restaurants.

The kitchen squadrons of Buffalo Niagara are thin on reinforcements. From chefs to dishwashers, restaurants are looking for good help in the land of the chicken wing. Buffalo needs cooks.

“From casual dining chains to independents, everyone seems to be struggling to attract and keep staff,” said Mark Mistriner, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Niagara Falls Culinary Institute.

Local culinary education centers are working on plans to expand programs to meet the demand, but their plans are outstripped by the vacancy numbers.

The need is acute. Employment statistics gathered by the State Department of Labor show restaurant employment in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area grew about 11 percent since 2010, to about 51,400 jobs in December 2018, said Timothy Glass, regional economist for the State Labor Department.

The restaurant business is growing more than twice as fast as the rest of the economy, Glass said. Ranked by job growth, he said, the leisure and hospitality sector, driven by restaurant and lodging growth, is the second-fastest growing part of the region’s economy, behind only education and health services.

Economists estimated restaurant growth would require about 1,950 new cooks and food preparation workers each year, Glass said. That’s not including management, and servers and workers in the front of the house. It also doesn’t count cooks changing restaurants.

It's hard to tell how many of those new positions are being filled, said Glass, because openings in fast-food and part-time roles aren't readily measured by present state labor statistics. But a steady flow of anecdotal evidence and job postings suggests restaurants are looking for help, with "employers looking for help wherever they can," Glass said. "Not just restaurants."

To make it work for now, restaurants are taking a number of routes. Some are establishing their own training programs, to instill basic skills in employees seen as sound investments. Some are pushing workers to work extra shifts. And although they are loath to say so publicly, some operators are hiring people they would otherwise turn away.

Compounding the difficulty of keeping entry-level employees is the rising state minimum wage for workers at fast-food restaurants with more than 30 locations. Chain restaurants like McDonald’s must pay workers at least $12.75 an hour since the rate was increased for 2019. At other workplaces, minimum wage is $11.10 an hour.

“When you have that gap, it forces employers to pay more or maybe hire people that they wouldn’t necessarily hire otherwise,” Glass said.

Niagara Falls Culinary Institute is reacting to the demand for restaurant workers by offering an accelerated 16-month curriculum. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Imperial Pizza owner David Powers said the need for good help has been so acute the company has considered opening its own training center to teach the Imperial way.

“If we’re going to branch off in the future, we’re going to have some kind of consistency,” said Powers, whose restaurant opened its first sit-down dining room in January. “We are definitely in need of not only cooks, but experienced kitchen help. It’s hot, it’s fast-paced, it’s not for everybody, that’s for sure.”

Bob Syracuse, co-owner of two Pizza Plant locations. (John Hickey/News file photo)

Bob Syracuse has 39 years in the restaurant business, and operates two Pizza Plant locations, on Transit Road and at Canalside. He’s a long-serving member of the New York State Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation, which supports culinary students with scholarships to ProStart, kitchen skills training for high schoolers.

“It is difficult to find people you can take in, not have to explain sanitation, knife skills, the importance of portioning, a myriad of things you have to train,” he said. “If someone goes through the ProStart or BOCES, at least they have the elements.”

Syracuse rarely sees local culinary graduates from places like Erie Community College and NFCI applying. “A couple have been through Emerson,” Syracuse said, citing the Buffalo high school program. “It makes it a little easier to train. They’re not walking around with a knife pointing straight forward.”

It’s possible culinary students, often with student loans to pay, are looking elsewhere.

“When people are coming out of a culinary program, restaurant management, what have you, I think they are looking for that higher-paying job that may not be there in a lot of restaurants,” Syracuse said. “Unless it’s a big corporation or a major chain, there is not a lot of room to move up. With two stores, if someone aspires to be in management, I don’t have much room for them to move up.”

The culinary school route

Erie Community College culinary students Alicia Barker-Smith, left, and Selena Maldonado prepare dishes in the kitchen at the E.M. Statler Dining Room at ECC City, a fine dining experience operated by students with faculty oversight. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The largest culinary school here is at ECC, which graduates 45 students a year from its program, trained with the use of two hands-on restaurant rooms at its City campus, downtown in the former post office, and at its North campus in Amherst.

“You could probably find our graduates in any sizable restaurant, more often than not,” said ECC’s Culinary Arts department chairwoman Kristin Goss. “Places like 800 Maple, Rocco’s, JT’s, Glen Park Tavern, Sear. Our graduates are all over this town.

“We have two new programs currently under development, and we hope in the future to have some new expanded space,” Goss said.

Mark Mistriner, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Niagara Falls Culinary Institute. (News file photo)

NFCI is reacting to the demand for restaurant workers by offering an “accelerated 16-month curriculum in both baking and pastry as well as culinary arts ... along with the traditional 24-month curriculums,” Mistriner said. “It is our hope the we can get the student into the workforce six months earlier than the traditional 24-month model.”

Like Imperial, Lloyd Taco Factory owners Peter Cimino and Chris Dorsaneo have thought about battling the Buffalo cooks drought by opening their own training academy, too. Between two restaurants, three trucks, a catering business, and Churn, their soft-serve ice cream and coffee place, they employ about 140.

They rarely see ECC or NCCC graduates applying, for reasons that are unclear. Maybe because fast-casual places aren’t seen as a classic culinary student goal, Dorsaneo wondered. “When you get out of culinary school, usually they go on this path where you eat (crow) for two years, at the salad station in some big hotel or resort, and eventually try to work your way to sous chef.”

Peter Cimino, left, and Chris Dorsaneo, of Lloyd Taco Factory. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

Lloyd is looking at training its own, “because there is a true need,” Dorsaneo said. “When we bring these people in, we are basically starting from scratch with them. So we have to build a program internally so we are getting enough applicants, where a lot of this stuff is getting knocked off."

Call it “Lloyd U,” he said.

The company is also fighting the hiring game by broadcasting its benefits, Cimino said: tip sharing for kitchen workers who interact with customers, paid breaks, free lunch, paid vacation, and help paying health insurance.

Culinary students can consider careers in fast-casual settings, too, said Dorsaneo, noting that Lloyd is hiring as it grows.

“I think there’s a misconception that when you know how to create a five-course tasting menu, you’re going to get paid more than the guy that knows how to chop cilantro and make a basic Russian dressing,” he said. “That’s not really the case.”

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