How to Solve Birmingham’s Food Service Worker Shortage

Esther Ciammachilli, WBHM

Nevill Baay, co-owner of El Barrio restaurant in downtown Birmingham. He's running the back of the house until they find a permanent kitchen manager.

Ramen, Cuban and Ethiopian food, and all the fried chicken you can stand. There’s no shortage of great places to eat in Birmingham. And many of those restaurants are new. But eateries need cooks and dishwashers and servers, and finding people to fill those jobs has been tough. For our new food series “Sound Bites” we look at one of the consequences of a fast-growing restaurant scene.

It’s 10 a.m. and the energy in the kitchen at El Barrio is palpable, even though the restaurant in downtown Birmingham doesn’t open for another hour. The deliciously pungent smell of garlic fills the air. Co-owner Nevill Baay is taste testing their ranchero salsa.

Quality control is part of Baay’s daily routine as interim kitchen manager. El Barrio has struggled to find someone to permanently fill this position. It’s a problem a lot of restaurant owners in Birmingham have been dealing with. Put simply, there are too many restaurants and not enough people to staff them. It’s a constant problem because it’s a highly competitive industry. So, the owners of El Barrio have gotten aggressive with their hiring tactics.

“We, a couple of years ago, decided that something that would be really advantageous was to offer health insurance, “Baay says. “So, we’ve got a Barrio-based health insurance plan. Just things to give this industry some legitimacy so people can look at it and say that’s a career.”

Working in a high-paced kitchen isn’t for the faint of heart. At El Barrio, quarters are tight and staff move as if their work has been carefully choreographed. But working in the front of the house is stressful too because you’re dealing face to face with the public. Brett Collins is a self-described restaurant lifer. He’s a server at the Bright Star in Bessemer right now. He says you have to be a little crazy to do this kind of work.

“There’s a genetic trait there I think you have to have. You have to be able to multitask. You have to be able to go on low sleep,” he says. “You have to be able to smile in the face of absolute utter ridiculousness when you’re dealing with that much of the public.”

Working in food service has its perks. Here's Bright Star server Brett Collins (L) with Clemson University football head coach Dabo Swinney in 2016.
Brett Collins

Working in food service has its perks. Here’s Bright Star server Brett Collins (L) with Clemson University football head coach Dabo Swinney in 2016.

Food service jobs tend to be lower paying. In Alabama, as in most states, restaurants often pay servers and other tipped employees less than the hourly minimum wage. And Collins says low pay means no loyalty. “And servers, especially servers, can in a heartbeat go, ‘I quit.’ And the grass is always greener. Especially in the corporate world. Turnover [in] service is insane because they can just go. They can just leave. You know, someplace else is struggling with staffing just like everybody else.”

Peter Brummund teaches economics at the University of Alabama. He says a lot of the onus to attract people to the food service industry falls to restaurant owners.

“The standard response is if businesses say they can’t find enough workers is they need to pay higher wages,” Brummund says.

Higher wages could lower turnover. Restaurant owners might offset having to pay those higher salaries by charging more for their menu items, but Brummund says, that’s business. He also says some responsibility should fall to the city of Birmingham. As revitalization continues, Brummund says city officials should consider helping residents get to work.

“A lot of the bigger cities have public transportation options that make it more convenient for people to live in affordable housing areas, but then also commute to places where the jobs are available,” he says.

Nevill Baay at El Barrio says one of the biggest obstacles facing the food service industry is getting people to see it as a career and not a stopgap. He recommends an emphasis on culinary education. And that could give restaurant owners a better pool of applicants to choose from. And Baay says good employees are always in demand.

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