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Is Seattle too expensive for its cooks? A quick look at a restaurant crisis

You don’t have to go far around here to find good restaurants. But Seattle area restaurants are having a heck of a time finding good cooks.

There’s a shortage, it turns out, of cooks, dishwashers, and other “back of house” restaurant staff in cities all over the country. And Seattle — the fastest growing city in America — is getting hit hard.

“If you come to the interview, and you’re not a sh*t show, I am going to hire you, because I am desperate for competent help,” reads an exasperated and anonymous job post on Craigslist that’s been making the rounds within the industry. (The post appears to be from Ballard, but there’s no telling who’s behind it — we emailed to ask, but no one’s emailed back.)

What’s going on here? We’ve heard some theories: There are too many restaurants. It’s too expensive to live here on a low wage and too much of a hassle to get into the city if you don’t.

Let’s look at the numbers.

So. Many. Restaurants.

Seattle has about 2,500 restaurants — 500 more than we had a decade ago — and the number is spiking. So many new restaurants are opening just this summer, in fact, that The Seattle Times actually included the phrase “Can you believe it?!” in the headline of this story about all the new spots.

Meanwhile, the gap between staff supply and demand is enormous. According to this state report, food service companies in Seattle and King County needed 3,955 prep and serving staff in June. But the supply of people to fill those jobs? It was just 634.

(Want to see these numbers yourself? Go here, check only “Seattle and King County” under Wdaname and scroll down to the Food Preparation and Serving Related row.)

‘We just need a break’

What does this staff shortage mean for Seattle restaurants? It means positions aren’t being filled, other staff are picking up the slack, and managers are getting frustrated and in some cases, exhausted. Little Uncle, a Thai restaurant in Capitol Hill, cut back its hours temporarily last summer because they were short staffed. Now they’ve told their customers they’re closing for lunch every day but Friday.

“Closing for lunch is a big deal as we have an abundance of lunch business, but we just need a break,“ co-owners and co-chefs Wiley Frank and Poncharee Kounpungchart told us. “We have had two open cook positions for a year. We have occasionally hired some to fill these positions, but they do not last more than a month.”

‘Increasingly unaffordable’

So why can’t restaurants in a booming, growing city find and keep the staff they need?

“One of the clearest obstacles to hiring a good cook, let alone someone willing to work the kitchen these days, is that living in this country’s biggest cities is increasingly unaffordable,” Roberto A. Ferdman of The Washington Post wrote about the national shortage.

Well that’s definitely true here. Seattle’s only the 18th largest city in the country, but at $1,910, we have the eighth highest median rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

So it’s no surprise that many of the cooks who do work in our kitchens live in cheaper places like Tacoma, Marysville, or Kent. They have to. But those places are far away, and getting into the city is a bigger and bigger hassle.

A little help?

The Seattle Restaurant Alliance has been hearing all about this from its 650 member restaurants. So when it hosted a hiring event to help restaurants out this May, job seekers got free Orca cards preloaded with $10 from Seattle & King County Public Health and the YWCA.

One-hundred people left the event with jobs in the industry. The alliance plans to do more events like it next year.

“Finding and keeping employees is the number one concern of our members,” said Jillian Henze, an alliance spokeswoman. “We are hearing that loud and clear.”

By Mónica Guzmán
Mónica is the cofounder and editor of The Evergrey. She's been a Seattle journalist for a decade and adores this city.