Restaurant rebirth

Restaurant rebirth

Are we becoming a nation of hamburger flippers? While it remains
incredibly tough to find a job in almost any field, the restaurant
business has been adding workers at a considerable clip.
Are we becoming a nation of hamburger flippers?

While it remains incredibly tough to find a job in almost any field, the restaurant business has been adding workers at a considerable clip.

In September, restaurants and bars in the U.S. added 34,000 jobs. In that same month, the entire private sector added just 64,000 jobs.

“The economy has recovered a little bit and people want to eat out,” said Jack Russo, senior consumer analyst for Edward Jones Investments. That has spurred hiring and prompted enthusiasm on Wall Street, where investors are hungry for any morsel of good news.

Restaurant stocks are soaring.

Shares of McDonald’s, for example, are up by a third from this time last year, and some chains are doing even better.

For many young people entering the job market in the aftermath of the recession, jobs waiting tables and tending bar are among the few opportunities available.

Peter Osborne, who owns Pete’s Cafe and Pedro’s Cantina in San Francisco, recently hired 35 waiters, bartenders and other workers.

“At 25 years old, a lot of these kids have graduated college,” Osborne said. “They’re taking jobs that you and I might have had while we were in college.”

Restaurant executives say more people are looking upon the field as a career rather than a pit stop on the way to another vocation.

“We are seeing more applicants coming to us not only for the hourly jobs, but for the management programs that we have,” said Mike Mirkil, spokesman for Irvine-based Habit Restaurants Inc., which owns 31 Habit Burger locations. “There are more people now who are really looking at the restaurant industry as a means for a career path.”

Long Beach resident Kiri Meas, 50, didn’t hesitate last month before quitting her job of seven years as manager of a Cinnabon bakery.

“I did not at all worry about finding another job,” she said. “The food industry is all around.”

Within three weeks she’d been scooped up by the Panda Restaurant Group to be general manager of a Panda Express restaurant. She is now one of dozens of new recruits going through training at the company’s Rosemead headquarters, learning skills as varied as cooking Chinese food and dealing with armed intruders.

Many of the new workers will stay for years, said Gigi Cheung, who heads hiring operations for the 18,000-employee chain.

The attraction of restaurant jobs may have increased in the aftermath of the recession, but it’s part of a long-developing trend. Over the past 20 years, the number of people working at restaurants and bars in the U.S. has increased by about 3 million, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Such work accounts for 9 percent of all private-sector jobs in the U.S., up from 7 percent in 1990.

One factor fueling the trend is that restaurant work can’t, for the most part, be outsourced. “You can’t serve restaurant meals from Shanghai,” said Edward Leamer, economist and director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast.

But Leamer cautioned that restaurant jobs alone won’t go far toward revitalizing the economy.

“These jobs are good in the short run, but in the long run economic growth cannot be made from you and I trading one meal for another,” he said. Rather, manufacturing or intellectual products such as movies and technical innovation need to come back before the economy can truly heal and grow, Leamer said.

Many restaurant jobs are part time and offer lower pay and fewer benefits than positions in other fields, experts said.

Still, analysts view the most recent spate of hiring as an indication that the economy is beginning to improve. Even though sales at restaurants have essentially been flat this year, according to research firm NPD Group, that’s better than the declines they had suffered through. And the firm predicts that more customers will patronize bars and eateries during the fourth quarter.

Steve West, restaurant industry analyst for Stifel Nicolaus in St. Louis, said the increases in share prices for restaurant firms were driven by large hedge funds and other institutional investors that are betting that the industry will rebound strongly in the coming months.

Even a modest increase in sales can lead restaurants to hire more people, said Hudson Riehle, head of research for the National Restaurant Association. Unlike other businesses, which might make do with smaller staffs even as the economy improves, restaurants need to hire more people to cook, serve, deliver and clean up when customers start coming back.

Robert Spivak, president of Grill Concepts, a Woodland Hills, Calif., company that owns the Daily Grill restaurants, said that as customers started spending more in recent months, the firm provided more hours of work for its employees.

“As our sales go up, our scheduling goes up,” he said.

Giacomino Drago, who operates seven restaurants, says he has hired between 30 and 40 people in the last year. He didn’t have any trouble finding them.

For some of the openings, he said, as many as 50 people applied.

“It was scary,” Drago said.

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