Not enough cooks in the kitchen: Big wages paid by marijuana industry eating into restaurant hiring pool

We’ve got a food crisis in Colorado, and it has nothing to do with crop yield, farm-to-table or availability of ingredients.

Local restaurants are having a near-impossible time hiring and retaining cooks, and the effects may be showing up on the plate and in the check.

The drum-tight unemployment rate and the frenetic pace of new restaurant openings are major factors. But as it turns out, people who are good on the kitchen prep line or in the dish room can make almost double the hourly wage trimming marijuana for sale.

While there are no hard data on people leaving the restaurant industry for marijuana, many Denver chefs and restaurant owners believe pot is a major culprit for their cook conundrum.

“We go months trying to fill a position. It’s always been bad, but then they legalized marijuana and it got real bad. There’s no way we can pay what they’re paying,” said chef Justin Brunson, owner of the restaurants The Royal Rooster and Old Major Culture Meat and Cheese.

Entry-level bud trimmers make $12-15 an hour, but speedy cutters can earn upward of $20, according to This compares with average of $12.83 per hour paid to line and prep cooks — still above minimum wage, but considering the physical demands of kitchen work, many people choose jobs that don’t require them to perform near-constant aerobic feats in a windowless, 90-degree room.

“You can go work in a grow house today and make $20 per hour and sit in a nice comfortable chair in an air-conditioned space with headphones on,” said Peter Karpinski, co-founder of the Sage Restaurant Group, which includes such eateries as Departure, Kachina and Urban Farmer.

“As our industry has grown here in Denver, it’s been difficult to hire,” he said. “I think the marijuana business had an effect on our business for a lot of those types of positions.”

When Tony Pasquini decided to close Tony P’s Uptown in January, he cited the tight labor market as one of the reasons. Other restaurants have had to delay openings — not just because of construction and permitting setbacks, but because they can’t find people to work.

A recent National Restaurant Association report confirmed that back-of-the-house positions such as line cooks, prep cooks and dishwashers are the most difficult to fill. That same report listed Colorado as one of the top growth states over the next 10 years for restaurant and food service jobs.

Part of it is, of course, the Benjamins. Servers, particularly those working at higher-priced restaurants, can — thanks to tips — make a decent wage. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Colorado waiters and waitresses earn an average hourly wage of $11.05, but unreported tips can bump this up significantly.

Line and prep cooks, however, don’t get a share of those tips.

And then there are all of those new restaurants opening. In 2010, Colorado restaurants had $8 billion in sales. Last year, that number was $12 billion, according to Colorado Restaurant Association spokeswoman Carolyn Livingston. Colorado restaurants in 2017 saw one of the highest year-over-year sales increases of any state in the country.

Sure, Colorado is seeing a slew of people moving here, but they don’t appear to be going to work in the kitchen.

“I’ve never in my entire career seen a labor market that is this tight and this challenging,” Sage’s Karpinski said. “It’s been a challenge across the board, just labor, hiring all positions. We, as well as others in Denver and Colorado, saw a real shortage and need for line cooks and prep cooks. Those positions are some of the hardest to get into the workforce.”

This isn’t a problem unique to Denver, but it does seem to be worse here. The unemployment rate of 3.1 percent is one of the lowest in the nation, and turnover data from the January State of the Restaurant Industry report by Upserve, a restaurant point-of-sale provider, showed that turnover rates are higher in Denver compared with the rest of the country. Nationally, turnover rates are 28.4 percent for kitchen staffers and 28.3 percent for servers. In Denver, it’s 33.8 percent for kitchen staffers and 33 percent for servers.

That translates to a lot of new and/or inexperienced people in the kitchen.

“For the sake of expediency, some restaurants are maybe making their menus less complicated in order to lessen the labor intensity,” said longtime Denver restaurant consultant John Imbergamo.

Translation? The food served at some restaurants may not be living up to its full potential.

Paying higher wages is one way that restaurants are trying to attract and retain cooks. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Imbergamo works with the Crafted Concepts restaurant group, which includes Rioja, Bistro Vendôme and Ultreia. Those three restaurants recently added a 2 percent surcharge to menu prices that is distributed to the non-tipped kitchen crew (line cooks, prep cooks and dishwashers).

Co-owners Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch explained their reasoning in a statement to customers that noted the Jan. 1 minimum wage increase to $7.18 per hour from $6.28 for tipped workers has widened the gap between the earnings of people at the front of the house and the folks in the back. “Implementing this program was not a simple decision, but we can’t support local farms, participate in our community and otherwise honor our values if we allow this wage gap to get worse.”

Another way the restaurant industry is addressing the cook shortage is by making it as easy as possible for interested workers to get the training they need to do the job.

Professional chef Ben Whelan, right, works ...
Kathryn Scott, The Denver Post

Professional chef Ben Whelan, right, works with Louisa Reese as she learns the proper way to cut a clean a striped sea bass. Students enrolled in the Culinary Quickstart program are learning what it takes to work in a professional kitchen at the Emily Griffith Technical College on Feb. 22, 2018 in Denver. About 50 students total are enrolled in this four week, tuition-free program. On this night, they are learning everything from proper chopping techniques, to rolling out pasta dough for ravioli, to cleaning and preparing fish.

At the Culinary Quick Start Program at Emily Griffith Technical College — sponsored by Sage Restaurant Group — students get a four-week, tuition-free course to prepare for a career in the culinary industry. During the program, students get hands-on training in food-handling safety, food-borne illness awareness and how to handle the equipment found in most professional kitchens.

At the end of the course, students and employers participate in a hiring fair, where restaurants such as TAG and Urban Farmer battle it out for talent.

“There are students who go through this program who are even homeless, and we’re able to take someone like that who has the desire to work, who wants a career, who wants a chance and in a short period of time get them employed at a top-notch employer in town,” said Karpinski, who estimated Sage has hired a couple of dozen people from the hundreds of graduates.

Livingston said the Colorado Restaurant Association has programs aimed at getting young people trained, too.

Colorado Pro-Start offers students at 34 high schools the opportunity to take restaurant and hospitality management classes to earn college credit, scholarships and paid work experience in the industry. They are also piloting a national program called Restaurant Ready, which trains at-risk youths to work in restaurants.

“Building up a skilled and educated workforce,” Livingston said, “is crucial to the future of our industry’s growth.”

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