As restaurants across the country expand capacity, reopen for indoor dining, and prepare for a new season of outdoor service, owners are struggling to find staff to meet their needs. Many workers still don’t feel safe returning to work during a pandemic. Others don’t want to fight with patrons over health and safety guidelines. Some may have left town or joined another industry while they were laid off and will return when the timing and opportunity are right.
Alice Cheng, CEO of hospitality industry job search engine Culinary Agents, has a macro view of the hiring trends across various cities and states and is a careful observer of candidate behavior. “A lot of the data that we see is there’s so many people looking at jobs, more so than in the past, and they’re waiting,” Cheng told Eater’s Digest podcast this week. “So, the data implies that people are looking, saving, clicking, curious, but they’re not taking action as quickly as they did in the past, for various reasons.”
Cheng is confident the workers will return, that the hospitality industry is a center of gravity for so many. But not right away. “They will come back in waves and on their timeframe. That’s just going to take a little bit of time. Nobody wants to hear that,” she says.
Listen to Cheng discuss what she’s seeing in her data, which cities are attracting the most candidates from out-of-state, how industry workers are beefing up their resumes right now, and what restaurateurs can do to get an edge over the competition. Her interview starts at the mark, after our conversation with workers’ rights advocate Saru Jayamaran.
Or read the condensed and edited transcript of our conversation below.
Listen and subscribe to Eater’s Digest on Apple Podcasts.
It seems like right now is really when people are ramping up hiring, and now, we’re seeing all these stories about staff shortages from the restaurateurs’ point of view, all over the country. As we know, the labor market was tight even before the pandemic. What are you seeing from where you sit?
You’re exactly right, and you see different scenarios and different challenges depending on the state and city as well. Some have had their ongoing challenges of just turnover, normal turnover of hiring in certain cities like Miami, where they had an influx of people in general, coming down there. They had to staff up and keep things going. So, their challenges were far different than the state of California or New York, or Philly or Chicago that were shut down for indoor dining completely.
As we’ve seen things unfold, what’s interesting is that pre-COVID, people were looking for certain qualifications. They were looking for line cooks with certain skills or certain experience and when they didn’t find that level, they said, “Oh, there’s a shortage”, or “I’m not finding what I need.”
The difference now is, especially with everyone reopening or the cities that are allowed to reopen that were closed, all the delayed projects from that are opening, people are hiring full-fledged staffs, multiple people per position. Not just like, I need one here, one there, but for a business owner, if you’re reopening and you’re getting your delayed projects back on track, you’re looking for 10 cooks. You’re looking for 20 cooks.
So, you have these restaurant groups that are opening entirely new restaurants because they were delayed until this moment. And then you have restaurants that are basically hiring new staffs because they laid everybody off and those people aren’t around anymore to take their jobs back if they even want to go back.
And then you throw in the complications of depending on what city, state. In Atlanta, for example, where the business takes more responsibility of helping the worker with unemployment, when they’re ready to call you back, you have to come back to them versus other cities that have different rules and the job seeker can manage to that and what works best for them. So, you might get called back. You might not want to return there. You might find a job somewhere else. So, there’s that.
I think it’s a delay in job seeker activity. It’s not like the government gave the businesses three or four weeks lead time to say, “Okay, a month from now, you’ll be able to open up 50 percent capacity.” A lot of times businesses were getting notified a week ahead of time: “Okay. You can open”.
A lot of things go into just opening as you know, and from a worker standpoint, maybe priorities have shifted for them. Maybe they’re currently employed in something that is not as exciting as their previous job in hospitality, but it’s helping them get by now and they’re going to wait and see a little bit. A lot of the data that we see is there’s so many people looking at jobs, more so than in the past and waiting. So, the data implies that people are looking, saving, clicking, curious, but they’re not taking action as quickly as they did in the past, for various reasons.
I saw Washington City Paper covered this and they were talking about how workers don’t just want to sit at home and collect unemployment. They just want to be very selective and very careful and are taking more time and don’t feel super rushed.
Right. You can’t blame them. I mean, that’s kind of what you would expect people to do. Especially, if some of them are considering relocating or going back home, or using this as an opportunity to move to the city that they’ve been wanting to. So, being a little bit more thoughtful, looking for different things, perhaps in what an employer can offer.
Almost a whole year has passed. As we kept in touch with and supported a lot of the workers during this time, individuals went through their own personal development and their own kind of re-prioritizations and folks who have temporarily chosen to do something else, I personally believe that this industry is one of those centers of gravity. People may go do something else and after a while, they might be like, “Well, I really do miss this,” or their buddy is back in the industry and they pull them back in.
I feel really confident that, yes, at this very moment when every single business is chomping at the bit to hire and to staff up that the workers are there. They’re watching. They will come back in waves and on their timeframe, and when they need to, and that’s just going to take a little bit of time. Nobody wants to hear that.
What else is the data telling you?
In certain cities, we are able to see, for example, in the New York Tri-State area, for the most part, the majority of the applicants and the job speakers are in New York. But in states and cities like Atlanta, Georgia, we can see that, yes, there are a lot of people in Atlanta that are looking at jobs, but then people that are in Florida, people from New York, you can see people that are physically in other cities that are looking for a job in that state.
This industry has always been very nomadic, for the right job, working for the right person, or just if the timing is right, people are willing to move for the opportunity. That’s one of the wonderful things about this industry. I think what also showed was that some people who physically had to move, either permanently or temporarily, found other ways to fulfill what they wanted, either temporarily or permanently.
Based solely on your own internal data, you could make a claim stating which cities actually had the greatest supply demand differential for workers?
What are those cities right now?
That’s a great question. I’ll twist it a little bit with my answer and say the surprising cities that have just kind of popped were ones that were growing. Texas, so Austin, Houston, Dallas, lots of job opportunities, lots of people looking at those jobs from all different cities. That was kind of surprising. The other one is Nashville. Again, lots of opportunities.
The other interesting data point for us is in Chicago. With Chicago we saw the number of jobs spike up very, very, aggressively. The volume of people looking at jobs remained stagnant and didn’t spike up with the number of jobs we usually see. However, the number of applicants spiked up. So to us, the data says it’s the same people that are applying to all of these jobs. There’s so many more opportunities. So, if you’re a business, what I would recommend is respond to those applicants as quickly as possible. Put your best foot forward and schedule your trails and follow through with them.
We did a survey earlier this year in anticipation of this kind of mass hiring frenzy so that we can highlight some things that were top of mind for job seekers and share that with businesses. It was interesting from a job seeker standpoint. Priorities definitely changed. A lot of them, the number one fact that people were looking for in an opportunity with what an employer could offer, was career opportunities. Am I going to have job security? Is there growth for me here, or should I spend my time and effort with this particular employer? Is that going to pay off for me?
What are some of the incentives you’re seeing restaurants offer or hospitality companies offer to get more, be more competitive?
There are the immediate ones, like the quick fixes that we’re seeing and then we’re seeing the longterm more structural ones. We do see businesses reevaluating their benefits packages. That may include things like flexible scheduling, childcare, those types of things. A little more longer term. We do see people offering retention bonuses for more near term, signing bonuses in certain situations, or referral bonuses, like giving their existing employees bonuses if they bring on one of their friends or they help recruit for them and then that person stays on for X amount of time. So, not so dissimilar to some of the incentives that people had in place pre-COVID, but a little bit more sense of urgency now, I would say.
Are you noticing that it’s a certain type of job that is particularly in demand or is it just across the entire industry, front of house, back of house, dishwashers, everybody?
It is across the board, but the surprising point of data that we did that wasn’t consistent with pre-COVID is that front of house positions, servers and hosts. Whereas, in the past, line cooks and specific back of house positions were always notoriously the number one pain point. Some businesses were open throughout this time and they retained and kept some of their back of house staff. There is a little bit more negotiating power for employees in general. For front of house, potentially, there’s more exposure so that there is a safety factor that’s a little different that may come into play still here. And for folks who are on tipped wages, it’s very unpredictable right now, depending on the city and state.
I do see that there’s a little bit more urgency. I’m also seeing that businesses, historically, who are looking for even a certain level of experience with the host, hostess or an entry level position, are really now focusing on positive can-do attitudes.
Is pastry on the rise or the decline post-COVID?
I have seen more savory folks beefing up their pastry skills. So, kind of this focus on cross-skilling and up-skilling across the board. We do see pastry positions, all levels like executive level to prep level, still actively on our site. That’s an indicator that that is still a position that is valued. Baking has been folded more into it in a way. So, instead of before just being like a pastry, now it’s like Baker, a Baker/Pastry, etc.
What do you say to restaurateur that comes to you for advice on this stuff? Is it just about the perks and the money?
A couple of things that are very practical, things that are helpful, is something as simple as just taking a look at your job descriptions and just making sure that your employer value prop or your culture or something is highlighted in there and that you’re actually representing yourself the way that you would want to be represented as somebody who wants to work for you.
A lot of businesses do amazing jobs focusing on all their guest-facing things, but when it comes to their employee or potential candidate facing things, sometimes, there’s room for improvement. I actually encourage people to be as transparent as possible because that is something I think is top of mind to job seekers is like, “Give me my information. Don’t try to beat around the bush and give me a job description that molds four jobs into one. Just tell me what I’m signing up for and then let’s have a conversation.”
I also encourage them to be responsive and as responsive as possible, even though everyone’s very busy. If you see an applicant that you’re interested in, jump on it and connect with them and be responsive because you never know who else is reaching out to them. Those first impressions are important. And then keep at it. You can’t just post one job or tell your team or put an Instagram post up and then be done with it. I always quote. I think Google said it best, which is, “If you can’t be found, you don’t exist.”
Well, Alice, thank you so much. This is so insightful and I think really useful for any of our restaurant industry listeners, as well.
Yeah. Thank you for having me.
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Culinary Agents specializes in connecting employers in the food services industry with job seekers from all levels of kitchen, beverage, and service work. They also offer a helpful service by automatically matching candidates to available job openings, and cater to over 30 cities across the U.S.
Culinary Agents also provides career-related information about the hospitality industry as well as social business networking.
- More than 80% of all Michelin-starred restaurants in the U.S. trust Culinary Agents.
- Quality brands such as STARR, Union Square Hospitality Group, and Rocket Farm Restaurants have found top talent through the site.
- Access to a marketplace where commercial equipment, restaurant equipment, gear, books, speciality food, and more can be sold and purchased.
- Share events and open calls on the industry event calendar.
- Link Career Pages directly to your website and get real-time Culinary Agents updates while promoting job opportunities to site visitors.
- Nominate team members to be featured in the "Get Inspired" section, thereby projecting a positive brand image to prospective employers.
- Automatic candidate matching.
- Job posts are distributed to over partner sites.
- Ability to contact candidate matches directly.
- Applicant filtering and networking opportunities.
- Jobs can be categorized by business type, area of service, and city.
- Option to pay per post or purchase a monthly subscription.
- Anonymous posting option.
- Free mentoring series available on the site.
- Site available in English, Italian, and French.
- Posts are limited to a single location.
- Subscriptions only include up to four free posts per month.
- Locations are not transferrable.
- Pricing for additional products not readily available.
- Certain features, such as anonymous posting, are only available with a monthly subscription.
- Job post packs are non-refundable and expire within 6 months of the purchase date.
No customer reviews were found for Culinary Agents.
How to Post a Job on Culinary Agents:
Four easy steps for posting a job on Culinary Agents.
Posting a job on Culinary Agents.
Go to culinaryagents.com.
Navigate to the Culinary Agents home page.
Click on "Post Jobs."
The "Post Jobs" button is in the top-right corner of the home page.
Create an account.
Scroll down to the "Get Started" section. Create an account or log in with Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google.
Enter your details.
Provide some basic information related to your job posting.
Start typing your location under "Current City" and select the applicable option from the drop-down menu.
Check the "I'm here to hire talent" box.
Select an industry of interest from the list, then check the relevant boxes from the drop-down menu.
Write a short description in the "How did you hear about us?" field, then click "Done.
Post your job.
Once you have entered your basic information, you'll be taken to the home page. Click on the green "Post Jobs" button on the top right of the page. Follow the prompts that follow to complete your posting.
Your name should appear beneath the logo on the top left, as well as in the far right-hand corner to show that you're logged in.
Culinary Agents vs. StarChefs JobFinder:
StarChefs JobFinder offers more pricing options than Culinary Agents but has a smaller discount on packages for multiple postings. StarChefs JobFinder also lacks some features offered by Culinary Agents, including sharing posts to other job boards and an applicant filter.
Culinary Agents vs. Restaurant Careers:
Culinary Agents features jobs in the food and service industry, while Restaurant Careers mainly posts restaurant jobs. Culinary Agents offers candidate matching, whereas Restaurant Careers aggregates job posts to other boards. A job posting at Culinary Agents costs $ per month, compared to Restaurant Careers’ price of $
Culinary Agents vs. PoachedJobs.com:
Both Culinary Agents and PoachedJobs.com match U.S. food and beverage industry employers with job seekers. Culinary Agents features candidate matching, whereas PoachedJobs.com provides access to a resume database. A basic job posting at Culinary Agents costs $ per month, while a similar post at PoachedJobs.com ranges between $ and $
As the restaurant industry continues to grow, hiring and retention has become increasingly challenging. Job turn-over, which is time-consuming and costly for operators, increased by percent in the upscale casual/fine dining segment alone from first quarter to first quarter , according to People Report. To tackle this growing challenge, former IBM executive Alice Cheng launched Culinary Agents, a LinkedIn for the culinary community, in
After spending years working with, understanding and witnessing how industries were being transformed by technology Cheng decided to apply her experience to the industry she was most passionate about, she tells me. Culinary Agents offers a professional network, professional resources (its Get Inspired platform) and a job matching service. With over 11, members including the restaurant groups of big name chefs and restauranteurs like Mario Batali, Danny Meyer and Thomas Keller the website has been growing fast, and now it has some cash in the bank to scale.
Two weeks ago Culinary Agents announced it has raised $, in Seed funding from RRE Ventures, Correlation Ventures and a group of angels. With the new funds, it plans to focus on building out the the networking and mentorship aspects of its platform.
We caught up with founder and CEO Alice Cheng via email to learn a bit more about her startups technology, fundraising strategy and user engagement. Our interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
And a note to you NYC folks: you can see Cheng present Culinary Agents at our January 30th (tomorrow) Food+Tech Meetup: How New Tech is Transforming Restaurants. RSVP and check out the line up of presenters HERE.
Food+Tech Connect: What is your business model?
Alice Cheng: Culinary Agents is a professional networking and job matching website. Personal and business profiles are free, and we charge $35 for a single post or $ a month for unlimited posts.
FTC: How does the backend technology work, and what does user experience look like?
AC: Our core product and service stems from our website. Users create a free profile (resume) that allows them to showcase their experience, education, skills and other professional accomplishments. For those looking for new opportunities, they may search for jobs, apply to jobs that they match, reach out to peers for advice or follow establishments that they hope to work for in the future. Users may claim and create business profiles (for free), post jobs and enjoy automatic matching, streamlined views of resumes, messaging and other applicant management features. Much of our features were influenced by early users and businesses, and we still strongly encourage feedback [so we can] continue to make our site even more effective for this industry.
FTC: How do you differentiate yourself from others in the space like Culintro and Good Food Jobs?
AC: I have tremendous respect for other entrepreneurs and companies adding value to the workers and businesses of this industry. Unlike other static job boards, we have an automatic matching process which tees up opportunities to talent and talent to businesses, along with the tools to support applicant matching, messaging and management. Our focus on building the professional network with our partnerships and inspiring industry professionals with our “Get Inspired” platform also positions us as extended recruiters for businesses. Our team has deep knowledge of the food, beverage and hospitality industry, along with strong technical design and development skills.
FTC: How many people are currently using your service?
AC: There are over 11, users on Culinary Agents with an additional 1,+ businesses from key culinary cities across the U.S.
FTC: What was your fundraising strategy, and why do you believe it was successful?
AC: My funding strategy was to secure funding as quickly as possible without disrupting the growth of the business. It was successful not only because we raised the targeted funds, but also because we highlighted the industry challenge of talent sourcing and professional networking directly to some of the top venture capital firms and private investors in New York, California and Boston. The caliber of businesses and quality of talent joining during this time made it impossible for investors to ignore. Shedding light on an industry wide challenge and securing funds to impact the change…that is the true accomplishment here.
FTC: How long was your fundraising process, and what (if any) challenges did you face?
AC: I think as a technology startup you’re always fundraising. For the most recently announced seed round, the biggest challenge was educating the venture capital and investment community about the opportunity and how inefficient some of the talent sourcing processes are. Many people can relate to a dining experience but few can relate to the industry nuances around talent sourcing and why existing tools do not effectively support them.
VCs and [angel] investors are not familiar with the lack of tools and inefficiencies around the talent sourcing process for the food service. It was a common surprise that inefficient classifieds listing sites were standards in many cities and also that even prominent restaurateurs faced hiring and retention challenges.To convince the investment community that there was truly a need, that the industry challenges were unique, the timing was right and Culinary Agents was best positioned to address it, that was the challenge.
FTC: What do you plan to do with the funds raised? Whats next for Culinary Agents?
AC: Features for talent and businesses around job matching and applicant management will continue to grow while we focus on the professional networking and mentorship aspects of our site. Introducing new ways for industry leaders to share advice and inspire others gets us really excited!
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