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Columbia Business Monthly

State’s Restaurants Cooking

Mar 01, 2017 05:12PM ● Published by Makayla Gay

By John Jeter

As you’re drooling over that savory locally sourced shrimp served with Charleston middlins rice—middlins?—with your mouthwatering braised heritage pork shank—heritage?—consider this: It takes several highly skilled technicians to run the robots that help build cars, and those hi-tech mechatronics workers are becoming increasingly harder to come by. And…that has to do with restaurants…because…?

Just as surely as workers build your transportation, they build your taste buds, and in South Carolina’s perhaps-too-successful restaurant industry, meal manufacturers are facing the same growing labor demands that other industries do these days.

“It’s been a challenge, I’m not going to lie to you,” says Alan Scheidhauer, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who’s also head of Greenville Technical College’s Culinary Institute of the Carolinas. “I had to change my voicemail—‘Please call our Career Services department’—because I don’t have time to talk to everybody. I can’t be an employment agency because I wouldn’t have time to train.”

Scheidhauer, 53, who has been with Greenville Tech for 23 years and has seen the program grow from 15-20 students to more than 200 now, joins several experts and industry observers statewide who see the same problem.

“It’s getting a little bit harder and harder to find a workforce in restaurants,” says Kristian Niemi, 51, a popular 23-year veteran of Columbia’s restaurant scene; he’s perhaps best known for his 1995 startup, Mr. Friendly’s, and, over the years, has opened a variety of eateries.

A few days before he joined a Jan. 23 groundbreaking at a property that will include one of his newest establishments, Steakhouse Capital Prime, Niemi discussed industry issues by phone from Bourbon, a whiskey bar and Cajun-Creole spot he opened in 2014.

“Anything that requires higher skills in restaurants is harder to fill,” he says. While he cites plenty of interest in the culinary arts, in part from the popularity of the Food Network and a variety of cooking shows, from FOX Television’s’ Hell’s Kitchen to Bravo TV’s Top Chef, he often sees newbies feel the burn.

“These kids are washing out of the industry early on because it’s not like TV,” he says. “You’d be surprised at how many times I’ve had to deal with that. Expectations of the restaurant business are unrealistic.”

Emily Hahn knows all about that. She was cut from the ninth episode of Top Chef’s 14th season on Jan. 26. Now she’s back to her day-night job as a chef and partner at Warehouse Bar & Kitchen, which opened in 2013 in downtown Charleston.

“We’re growing very, very rapidly, and maybe slightly too quickly,” the 35-year-old says of the Holy City’s much-venerated food scene. “There’s a staffing shortage in the front of the house, a staffing shortage at the back of the house. Since we’re such an amazing town and a great community, and one of the most beautiful cities in the world, people want to come here and open businesses, and I think it’s beginning to be slightly oversaturated. So many businesses and restaurants are opening, there’s a staffing shortage—I believe we’re even calling it a staffing crisis.”

In 2015, the hospitality/tourism industry accounted for nearly 10 percent, or about $19 billion, of South Carolina’s $201 billion GDP, according to figures from the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The state’s 180,100 eating and drinking places employ 8,880 people, the SCRLA’s 2015 “Restaurant Industry at a Glance” report shows.

At the same time, median income for the state’s 2,480 chefs last year was $31,410, with the top 90th percentile earning just below $60,000, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2016 data. For the state’s largest cohort of food-service workers—the 46,590 employees the BLS categorizes as “Combined Food Preparation and Serving Workers, Including Fast Food”—median annual income’s only about $18,000; the top percentile’s just $21,000.

Even still, South Carolina’s restaurant business is expected to grow 15.3 percent by 2026, eclipsing North Carolina’s 14.8 percent and Georgia’s 14.2 percent, says Leslie Shedd, vice president of communications for the National Restaurant Association and, by happenstance, a native South Carolinian.

“What that tells me is that all three of these states are a great place to get a job in the restaurant industry because there is a lot of room for growth and promotion,” says Shedd, 37, who worked in the industry here for about six years.

While Scheidhauer and others say labor challenges simmer, consumer demands sizzle.

Even with escalating competition from meal-preparation and delivery services—think Blue Apron—and tech’s ever-present disruptions with smartphone apps for faster fast food, Gallup reports that 61 percent of Americans dine out at least once a week. “The relative stability in the percentage of Americans eating out is thus a positive finding for the restaurant industry,” Gallup reported in December.

From high-end restaurants such as Hahn’s and Niemi’s to farm-to-table entrants to trendy “casual fast food,” customers increasingly seek experiences that are fresher and faster. They want local ingredients, intimate service, and more transparency, both on the menu and in the dining establishment itself, observers say.

“In the restaurant sector, there’s one big trend toward the whole open-kitchen concept, and that goes hand-in-hand with the customer’s desire for authenticity. They’re looking to engage with staff, whether it be the chef or the wait staff,” says Simon Hudson, a 56-year-old Briton who holds a doctorate in consumer behavior and an endowed chair at University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail, and Sports Management.

He mentions busy baristas in full view. “With some of your fast food, even Starbucks, they make their money on the fact that consumers love to watch their coffee being made for them, and they’re willing to spend five bucks rather than a dollar and a half to do it.”

Hudson then tells about how he would get a complimentary glass of postprandial port brought to his table at a London restaurant before the bill’s served. American consumers are hungry for those sorts of surprises, he says: “Some kind of emotional connection.”

Attention to detail and intensive customer-service training aren’t cheap. That’s why South Carolina restaurants considering franchise opportunities should have financial and experiential heft before expanding into other parts of the state. “There’s room for every type of restaurant model in the state, but you won’t survive unless you have the training and the business financial model,” Hudson says.

Eateries can be an investment as rich as Chef Hahn’s Miso Butterscotch Budino with Toasted Peanuts and Five-Spiced Whipped Cream.

“Opening a restaurant is still very expensive to do,” Niemi says, citing leases, building up-fit costs, and other startup expenses. “You might see some growth in that (franchising), but it just depends on the entry price of what it is to get into it.”

From her Washington, D.C., office, Shedd tastes optimism. “I can tell you it has always felt like South Carolina—and my hometown of Greenville, in particular—was a place that had a consistent stream of great new restaurants coming to town. That means more jobs for South Carolinians and more revenue coming into the state.”

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