CAPE COD – The cause of one specific problem in many Cape Cod restaurants, a shortage of kitchen help, can be found by the simple process of boiling.
“It boils down to supply and demand,” said Michael Pillarella, executive chef at the Wianno Club in Osterville.
“What we have is a huge demand for a limited supply of cooks and chefs,” said Pillarella. “Particularly anyone who is a professional or has some industry experience.”
Mac Hay, owner of four restaurants – Mac’s Chatham Fish & Lobster, Mac’s Fish House Provincetown; and two restaurants in Wellfleet, Mac’s Shack, and Mac’s On The Pier – said, “It’s my biggest struggle, bar none. Every single day that I wake up, it’s the first thing I think about.”
In this Cape Cod tourism economy, with its extreme peak season, there is a common and enduring struggle for businesses to find or retain staff. Here is a look at a microcosm of that struggle: kitchen staff on Cape Cod.
“Workforce, or lack of workforce is arguably the biggest challenge employers are facing in the region,” said State Senator Julian Cyr (D-Truro). “It’s particularly acute in the hospitality industry,” he said.
Pillarella said he is paying significantly more for kitchen help in the last three to four years. “The local talent has increased in cost. It has not increased in quality.”
Harry Henry, board president of the Cape Cod Culinary Incubator, which helps prospective business owners in the culinary business, asked, “If you are going to pay people at the rate you paid them three or four years ago, can they still afford to live on the Cape?”
In fact, said Henry, among the things he works on with people looking to get into the business is labor costs and the local demographics.
“What’s available in the labor force is a lot of people like me, who are retired,” said Henry. There’s not a lot of younger people looking for jobs. You have to pay more.”
“Most of these businesses, if they are not completely seasonal, there is a seasonality to their business and their work,” said Cyr, who is a new member of the Senate Restaurant Promotion Commission.
“It’s a tough business to be in,” said John Yingling, owner of three restaurants in Provincetown – Spiritus Pizza, Bubalas, and Local 186.
“You are only open five months a year, maybe six months,” he said. “Only two or three months are you making money. You have to pay for all the times you are losing money. It’s a tough demographic to be in.”
Almost every chef or owner Cape Cod Wave spoke to for this story talked of the “narrow margins” of survival in the industry.
While there may be some fluidity as to how that plays out in various parts of the Cape, the seasonality of it remains true in all towns.
Still, over time, the tourism calendar has expanded.
“Thirty years ago, Cape Cod was a Memorial Day to Labor Day type of place,” said Cyr. “Maybe you stayed open to Columbus Day,” he said. That calendar and a different housing market made finding help easier.
Back then, as the oft-told story goes, college kids were the main staff for many restaurants and hotels.
But as summer rents rose and college kids mostly abandoned dreams of summer on the Cape for other places and opportunities, businesses still needed workers. Tourists, who bring with them so much money, needed somewhere to stay and to eat.
And over the years, the calendar has extended into the shoulder seasons: spring and fall.
One of the goals of the Restaurant Promotion Commission is to “build up the off-season. July and August are always going to be gangbusters. You are always going to be able to meet your payroll,” said Cyr. It is the off-season that is challenging, he said.
An extension of the season is good for the region’s economy, said Cyr. But, he said, a longer season means, “you need workforce earlier in the season and you need them to stay later” said Cyr.
When the college workforce no longer met the needs of restaurants, those businesses turned to foreign workers.
A specific VISA program, H2B, allowed foreign workers into the country to work for a certain number months, before going home. They could then reapply to come back and many did, becoming loyal workers for businesses across Cape Cod.
And then, in 2017 with a new President in power, there was a reduction in the number of H2B VISA workers allowed into the country, and new rules making it more difficult to retain staff. Without getting lost in the weeds of H2B law, it’s clear that a lot had changed.
Pillarella said, “”It was probably one of the most difficult summers I faced here at Wianno. I run a kitchen of 38 guys,” he said. That summer, he was down 10 H2B workers, and those slots did not get filled.
“I can’t run a business without people,” he said. “I need to staff my kitchen.”
Pillarella said the situation forced him to have his staff work more overtime than they even wanted, and to them pay overtime wages. The financial costs to the business are higher, he said, and after a sustained period of long hours, the staff gets burned out.
“You perpetuate yourself into a negative downward cycle,” he said.
“I had a guy that worked for me for three years,” said John Norton, executive chef at the Coonamessett Inn in Falmouth. “He changed apartments every eight months or so. It was summer rental, winter rental, summer rental.”
“He finally got sick of it and moved off Cape,” said Norton. “Him and his wife just picked up and left.”
Joseph Ellia, executive chef for The Black Dog on Martha’s Vineyard and in Falmouth, said, “Young families are moving away, and towns are doing more and more stuff for the elderly around here. I see more and more summer homes, more empty homes [in the offseason] around the Cape.”
“Housing is driving the workforce shortage on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket” said Cyr. “It all comes back to housing.”
Cyr was not the only one to cite the move, especially on the Outer Cape, of housing from year-round rentals to seasonal rentals and weekly in-season rentals.
“It’s particularly challenging for back of the house work staff that is paid hourly at a relatively lower wage than front of the house staff that works for tips,” he said.
And as far as just working here for the season, Cyr said, because of the cost of housing, “There are very few options for Americans who want to work seasonally here.”
And so the circle comes back to the foreign workers that the federal government has been restricting.
Some restaurants do, in fact, provide some housing for these workers.
It is housing that many restaurants say would not work for American workers, for various reasons – especially the fact that if these were filled year round there would be nowhere to put the needed influx of H2B seasonal employees to keep the restaurants running.
In this story, there are a lot of moving parts and like a lot of important stories on Cape Cod, the biggest moving parts are housing, wages and jobs. Rinse and repeat… housing, wages and jobs.
Add in skewed-older demographics and a nationwide opioid epidemic that hits way too close to home for some in this industry, and you get a story of Cape Cod that is different from the glossy guidebooks.
Before hiring foreign H2B workers, businesses are required to advertise the jobs to American workers. They do, and they cannot fill them.
“Check Craigslist in April and May. There are an excess of jobs,” said Pillarella. “There are not cooks available. When I say cooks, I am using that term loosely.”
“I am looking for a gentleman or lady that will show up every day, act like a professional, not be intoxicated, and care. Someone that we can trust,” said Pillarella.
“To be honest, I can’t find that. I can’t get people to show up for the job interview. If they’re a good person with the right attitude, willing to show up for work with the proper wages, we’d start training you tomorrow,” said Pillarella.
“We do have standards,” Pillarella said of working at Wianno. “We’re looking for professionals that want to work.”
There are stories.
“I had one guy doze off at my table trying to fill out an application,” said Norton. “I’ve hired people at rehab houses around town. They work out for a while and then they disappear.”
Norton, who used to work off Cape, said, “The Cape is a different animal. It’s crazy down here… I can’t find anybody with the motivation.”
“I never had a problem with turnover in my kitchen until I moved to Cape Cod,” said Norton, who said he has been with the Coonamessett for four years.
This year, Norton said, he “turned over maybe six to eight people that I hired in the kitchen. One of them got drunk. One got arrested three weeks after I hired him. One guy stopped coming. He actually had some drive but he got another job.”
Ellia said, “The drug problem is everywhere. In this industry, now alcoholism is a big thing as well. We work late nights,” he said.
Restaurants have bars and make money on alcohol. It is part of the scene. And Ellia said, “When you are not working, you are still drinking. Alcoholism is big in this industry.”
And while the issue of substance abuse was highlighted more than once in interviews, Hay said, “There can be some shady characters that get involved in the restaurant business. But it’s not like we’re plagued with drug addicts walking in the door every day looking for jobs.”
“Some people that apply, you see there are issues with their resume, and you just avoid them,” said Hay.
As for unreliable addicts looking for restaurant work, Yingling said, “There are not people like that in Provincetown. That’s like a question for down Cape. In Hyannis you can probably find workers who are unreliable to do their job.”
“The local kids we hire are very reliable,” said Yingling.
“And people in their 40s and 50s if they’re all fucked up on booze or whatever, if they’re living in Provincetown, they’re all rich and they don’t have to work. They’re getting fucked up for fun. They’re not coming around looking for a job in my kitchen,” he said.
One reason many, in Provincetown and across the Cape, aren’t looking for those jobs is because it is hard work, according to everyone interviewed for this story.
“We work when everybody else is having fun,” said Norton. “We work 12 to 14 hours a day. We work every single holiday. We work Mother’s Day from 6 a.m. to 6 at night.”
“It’s the lifestyle,” he said. “My weekends are Wednesday and Thursday. I’m used to it.”
Working in a kitchen, said Hay, is “an incredible grind.”
And many people, having seen some cooking show on TV, are surprised by that, he said.
“Definitely what happened is there’s been a sensationalism of the culinary profession with the Food Network star chefs,” said Hay.
“People are interested in being a cook or a chef but they don’t realize how much work it takes,” he said. “They think they are going to be on TV the next day making a million dollars.”
“They are unrealistic about how hard it is to show up every day in a kitchen restaurant environment. It’s a high pressure situation.”
“People who have a real calling in the industry, maybe they are the misfits,” he said.
More motivated misfits are needed.
“The problem is we have a housing crisis and we’ve weeded out anybody that was on the fringe,” said Hay. “There are very few of those people around.”
And while restaurants cannot find enough people to work in their kitchens, Cyr said his work for several years for his parents restaurant in Truro provided valuable training for his current work as a state senator.
“People ask me what is it like being a state senator,” said Cyr. “And I say, Well, have you ever worked in the restaurant business? You are dealing a whole host of tasks, and dealing with all sorts of customers, both pleasant ones and unpleasant ones.”
While misfits and maybe future senators are needed in Cape Cod’s kitchens, what is really needed and will be paid for are reliable good chefs and cooks – prep cooks and dishwashers too.
“If you have a good guy, you have to take care of them.” said Pillarella.
And at the same time, he said, “We are not able to absorb these labor costs by passing them onto the customer. I can’t take a hamburger from eight dollars to fourteen in three years.”
Ellia said he has lost cooks to seasonal businesses that pay more. In order to keep good staff, he said, “You have to paint a bigger picture for them.”
“I got really lucky,” said Ellia. “I’ve got four solid guys that work underneath me. They see the bigger picture of it all. They love what they do and they love to cook,” he said.
“Attitude is 90 percent of the battle,” said Hay. “I have a couple of guys that go out on fishing boats and they work part time washing dishes for us. That’s great and we hire them and they work out.”
“It’s a case-by-case basis,” said Hay. “The social aspect of a restaurant is so massive. The impact that a restaurant can have on a community is more than just serving food. It’s being a resource for the community, the customer, and our employees.”
And the industry, so reliant on H2B workers, has helped those workers in return. He cited “a guy from Mexico that has been with me for seven or eight years and is able to go home and build a house for his family.”
“People come here and work hard and appreciate the opportunity,” said Hay. “That’s lost on American workers.”
And yet it is not lost on all American workers. There are plenty working in kitchens, or running kitchens that understand completely the hard work, and the rewards.
While the intersection of jobs, wages and housing are the drivers of many important Cape Cod stories, including this one, there is another common tale of restaurant workers: upward mobility.
There is the person who started as a dishwasher and learned their way all the way up to opening their own place, or taking over their own kitchen. “That’s the story of my own parents,” said Cyr.
“My Dad moved to Provincetown in 1974 and started working at the Red Inn the day after Labor Day,” he said.
A few years later, his parents opened Adrian’s Restaurant in Truro, where Cyr claims he learned many of the skills that help him a senator. “It’s not a unique, special story,” he said.
Every chef or restaurant owner was asked for a name of an employee we could interview for this story. Only Norton gave us a name, Matthew Urban.
Urban is in his fifth year at the Coonamessett.
Urban, 50, started working when he was 13 as a dishwasher at the Seacrest Hotel in North Falmouth.
At about 16 years old, he started transitioning from dishwasher to prep cook, he said. In the kitchen, he said, “I learned on the job, just watching other people.”
But then the Seacrest was sold to new owners and he took a job at the Silver Lounge in North Falmouth, where he became a cook and stayed for 27 years.
And then, his becomes a very sadly American healthcare story as much as a Cape Cod kitchen story.
“I ended up breaking my collarbone and I had to leave. I had to cash out my 401k. I had to resign my position. I was out of work for four months,” said Urban.
The small restaurant, he said, could not afford to keep him. They needed to pay someone to actually do his work.” Calls to the restaurant by Cape Cod Wave were not returned.
He took the job at the Coonamesset for significantly less than he was making before he was injured. But it was a job and he appreciated it.
“Someone made me an offer and I took it,” he said.
As for his living conditions, this restaurant lifer said, “I am a renter.”
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