DC restaurateur: There’s no staffing crisis. There’s a wage crisis.

Veteran D.C. restaurateur Mark Bucher thinks his industry is spending too much energy bemoaning the problem bars and restaurants are having finding people to fill the job openings they have, and not enough energy making those jobs ones that people want.

Bucher, who operates three locations of his Medium Rare steak frites restaurant in Cleveland Park, Bethesda and Arlington, said he believes there is no restaurant staffing crisis, there is a wage crisis — and he’d like the industry to drop the “churn and burn” model of low-wage workers.

Most Americans, according to the National Restaurant Association, have worked in food service at one point in their lives, and Bucher said those jobs have historically always been jobs that people needed, not ones they wanted. He said he thinks the post-COVID labor shortage should be a wake-up call for the industry.

“Independent restaurateurs are not properly-trained business people. Let’s call it what it is. In an industry where there is over a 50% failure rate in a certain number of years, there is a problem. If you pay the higher wages, you have to believe and trust that your employees are going to take better care of you, and your sales will go up,” Bucher said.

“Maybe you fix the model by paying them higher wages so you’re not turning over employees, and they become more valuable to you, and you more valuable to them. And then you can worry about growing your business and not worry about hiring people and training people.”

Other D.C.-area restaurant owners may agree higher pay is part of the solution, but figuring out how to do that is a big challenge. Spending more on payroll is a tall order, especially after the pandemic ravaged their businesses.

Several other usually candid restaurant owners in the D.C. area contacted for this article declined to comment. One simply said the economics of full service restaurants are complex and becoming more complicated. Nonetheless, Bucher insists it is a sink-or-swim decision for his industry.

To those outside the restaurant industry, the discussion about worker shortages and low pay usually defaults to those people who are seen, such as servers and bartenders. The truth is, those restaurant employees can make good money if they’re working at successful restaurants.

Jeff Bank, CEO of the recently-reopened Carmine’s restaurant in downtown D.C., said his wait staff can make anywhere from $60,000 to $85,000 a year.

The labor shortage is more pronounced in the back of the house, where the work is essential to the business, but it is hard and sometimes dangerous work. Bucher said he thinks restaurant owners are doing themselves a disservice by dismissing those jobs as low-wage positions.

He gives this example: “If you were to talk to any restaurant or bar owner in the country and, say, two dishwashers walk in and one is $12 an hour and one is $20 an hour, they would probably pick the $12-an-hour guy. I say that’s a mistake. You pick the $20-an-hour guy,” Bucher said.

“They will never miss a minute of work. He or she will show up on time every day, wash dishes better, cleaner and faster than anybody. And I’ll bet you they will break less. When a dishwasher doesn’t show up on a Saturday night, you’re sunk. How many covers do you have to turn away on a Saturday night because you were paying your dishwasher $12 an hour? Pay more money. Make the job too much to give up. If you pay the money and provide a career path, you’d have people lining up to work for you.”

Bucher, whose three restaurants employ more than 160 people, said Medium Rare’s average hourly pay is $25 to $30 an hour. Those employees also receive benefits, including paid time off, and a path to management and citizenship. The average manager tenure at his restaurants is nine years, and all of his kitchen managers started as line cooks or dishwashers.

In the District, the minimum wage was raised to $15.20 an hour this month. It is $5.05 per hour for tipped employees, though if tips don’t close the gap to minimum hourly wage, employers must make up for it.

Those typically employed in the restaurant industry now have other options. And many are taking them.

“Dishwashers, bussers, runners, kitchen line staff. (Restaurants) are having a hard time finding them, because they can make more money working for one of the third-party delivery apps, or driving for Uber of Lyft, or working for Amazon delivering packages. They get better benefits and they get paid time off,” Bucher said.

As of June, there were almost 13,000 fewer people working in the food service industry in the District itself than there were a year earlier, according to the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer, or 31% fewer food service employees.

While that reflects the impact from restaurants that were shuttered by the pandemic and no longer contributing to the labor force, with restaurants that survived and have been fully opened since spring, it is an indication of jobs going unfilled.

Food service jobs in the District typically account for almost 20% of all food service jobs in the entire D.C. metro area.

For D.C. area restaurants that survived the past 16 months, the pandemic has forever changed their business models, from hyper-use of technology, to innovations in delivery, takeout and safer on-site dining. Bucher, who is actively looking to open more Medium Rare locations in new markets, would like to see higher wages be one of the pandemic’s legacies.

“We got bailed out by the government with PPE money. We need to say, ‘Thank you,’ and be better employers as a result of it,” he said.

Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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