The Hardest Part Of Opening A Hot New Nashville Restaurant Might Be Finding The Staff To Do It

Apr 12, 2017

Three weeks before the restaurant Lulu was scheduled to open, the building on Jefferson Street was in a state of disarray. Cardboard boxes filled with dishwasher racks and food processors were piled high against the window. Workmen were installing floors and sinks.

“What we're waiting on right now are just some inspections," said the restaurant's founder, Miranda Whitcomb Pontes, who also founded Burger UP and Frothy Monkey. "Then we can start cooking things.”

But besides the food and floors, something else needs to be ready on opening day: a staff. 

Some restaurants say this is increasingly difficult in a food scene where more than 100 restaurants and bars are slated to open this year, according to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation — and they all want friendly, hard-working people to run the place.

"I would say over ... these last two years in particular, the labor market has been really stretched thin for the restaurant industry," said Claire Crowell, the COO of A. Marshall Family Foods and the president of Nashville Originals, a trade organization of about 60 independent restaurants. "That's our number one cause of concern for members in Nashville Originals." 

Finding Good People

At Lulu, Whitcomb Pontes hired Mayter Scott to put together a team of about 35 people — everyone from the chef who decides the menu to the front-of-house employees who work directly with customers. Scott started as a server 14 years ago and has worked in several restaurants since. She's seen the rise in demand for people in her industry.

"Every time a restaurant opens, if you have any decent amount of experience...people will approach you all the time," Scott said.

Now, she's on the other side of the process. She flipped through her mental Rolodex and approached people she wanted to work with.

"I immediately thought of Nathan [Cannon]," she said. "He was the COO of Fifth & Taylor," a high-end American restaurant a few blocks away from Lulu, where Scott also worked recently.

Cannon is now the operations chief of Lulu. Another member of Lulu's founding team comes from Adele's, a restaurant in the Gulch; two more also recently worked at Fifth & Taylor.

Scott objected to the word "poaching" to describe this trend of recruiting employees from other restaurants. She said she simply showed them another opportunity, which they were free to accept or not. 

"I'm not stealing anyone. I'm offering them a better way of life through a previous relationship," she said.

The number of qualified employees in Nashville is limited, and there’s already high turnover in the restaurant industry. The result is a classic case of supply and demand, said Crowell, with Nashville Originals. Facing higher demand for workers and not enough supply, restaurants are forced to make themselves more attractive.

“What we’ve been working with our membership and our restaurants is creating a culture where people don’t want to leave," Crowell said.

Workers Are The Winners

This could mean better pay, but it also could mean more substantive changes, like improving workplace culture and adding benefits to a job that typically hasn't had them — health insurance, vacation time, even 401(k)s. Retirement plans are especially rare in the restaurant industry: In 2014, 8.4 percent of restaurant workers had some sort of pension plan at their job, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Miranda Whitcomb Pontes named her new restaurant after a nickname she gives her dog — Lulu.

The restaurant boom is also forcing establishments to treat employees better, said Rachel De Jong, now the head chef at Lulu. She said that’s a healthy shift.

"Largely, in the past, it sort of held a mentality that you did whatever needed to be done. That could mean 18-hour days. That could mean standing and not eating forever. It could [mean] emotional and verbal abuse."

In other words, as long as the boom keeps up, restaurant workers might be the biggest winner.

"I think more establishments are pushing for a better quality of life for their employees," said Nathan Cannon from Lulu.

Whitcomb Pontes said she’s always pushed the quality-of-life philosophy — which includes trying to support her employees' personal lives, taking her staff out on group bonding trips, and offering benefits.

"I remember when Frothy Monkey first opened [nearly a decade ago], we offered health insurance. TV news came and wanted to interview me. I thought, 'this is so weird. Why don't we all offer things that say to our staff that we care?'"

But now, that's less of a novelty.

If her employees decide to move on — and inevitably, some will — they’ll likely find plenty of other restaurants that now offer similar perks and are hungry for their experience. That will sting at first, Whitcomb Pontes said.

"But then I think, maybe it wasn't the right fit. If they are going to be happier somewhere else, I'm 100 percent for it."