In Nashville, it’s a good time to be a restaurant employee

May 15, 2017

Lulu, a restaurant that just opened near Nashville’s Germantown neighborhood, was in setup mode not long ago. Workers installed floors and sinks, and cardboard boxes filled with dishwasher racks and food processors were piled high against the window.

“What we're waiting on right now are just some inspections,” said Miranda Whitcomb Pontes, Lulu’s owner. “Then we can start cooking things. Everything will happen really rapidly at this point. Right now, it looks like chaos.”

Whitcomb Pontes is a serial entrepreneur in the Nashville, Tennessee restaurant scene. She helped open a popular burger joint, a local coffee chain, an upscale American restaurant and now this fast-casual place, Lulu, specializing in salads and grain bowls. And she knows, besides the food and floors, one other thing needs to be ready: a staff.

Restaurant owners in Nashville have a lot of competition these days. This year, more than 100 restaurants and bars are slated to set up shop there, according to the city’s tourism bureau. The number of food places has grown by nearly a third over the last decade.

And all these new businesses are looking for employees to fill a surge of job openings.

So Whitcomb Pontes hired Mayter Scott to put together the team. Scott has worked in Nashville restaurants for the past decade and a half, and she’s seen this part of the process from the other side, as a former server.

"Every time a restaurant opens, if you have any decent amount of experience, people will approach you all the time,” she said.

Now, Scott is doing the approaching. She pitches Lulu to potential employees as more than a restaurant —  as a supportive workplace where people can let their creativity shine. This intrigued Rachel De Jong, a chef who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and was one of Lulu’s first hires. De Jong said, for a long time, the industry had a bad rap as one that was hard to work in.

"Largely, I think, in the past, it sort of held a mentality that you did whatever had to be done,” she said. “That could mean 18-hour days. That could mean not eating, that could mean standing and not drinking water forever. It could mean emotional and verbal abuse."

And restaurants didn’t used to offer many financial incentives either, said Nate Gifford, a butcher who runs his own bacon company. He moved here eight years ago to be a line cook. At one steakhouse he applied to early on, he said, he was competing against dozens of other people for an entry-level job.

“If someone not in the industry would say, ‘Do you have benefits? Do you have health insurance? Do you have retirement, line cook?’ we would laugh,” he said. “We would be like, ‘No, we don't have insurance. We’re lucky to have jobs.’ ”

Now, at least in Nashville and other booming restaurant cities, the dynamic has flipped. Workers can afford to turn places down, Gifford said.

“You don’t have insurance? Maybe I’ll pass, because this guy has insurance,” he said. “Now, I can be a line cook and feed my family, have health insurance, maybe even retirement.”

Wages are going up too. Claire Crowell, the president of a trade organization called Nashville Originals, said her servers used to make $15 to $18 an hour with tips. Now they routinely make $22, even $30.

In other words — it’s a good time to be a restaurant employee. Owners are having a harder time.

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“The labor market has been really stretched thin for the restaurant industry,” Crowell said. “That’s the No. 1 cause of concern for our restaurant members in the Nashville Originals.”

And businesses don’t just have to recruit, they also have to retain — because in this tight market, newcomers might try to snag your best employees.

Mayter Scott at Lulu said she flipped through her mental Rolodex when hiring staff. For instance, her top manager had just left a high-end restaurant a few blocks away called Fifth & Taylor, where Scott used to work too. 

“And then I worked with Casana at Adele's,” Scott said, pointing to another new co-worker, “and then Belle came from Fifth & Taylor as well.”

Scott bristles at the word “poaching” to describe this practice.  

“I'm not stealing anyone. I'm offering them a better way of life,” she said.

 The key is for Nashville restaurants to offer a way of life so attractive that their employees don’t want to leave.  Because otherwise, they can.