Commentary

Op-Ed: Restaurant Labor Shortage Demands a Values-Centric Food-Service Culture

Toasting a better future for restaurant employees.
Toasting a better future for restaurant employees. Spuntino Food & Wine
Over the last few months, the public has seen the chaos and negative effects of the labor shortage in the food-service industry. As a former restaurateur, sustainable business entrepreneur and director of Good Business Colorado’s Resilient Restaurants campaign, I know the struggle is real.

We all hoped that the convergence of summer, increased public health, and people returning to travel and socializing would have a profoundly positive impact on small independent businesses. This is unfortunately not the case for many Denver dining establishments, as well as for some customers who may notice a different quality of customer service than they remember from 2019. The restaurant industry faces instability, rising costs and an acute labor shortage.

That’s why it’s time to create restaurants with a more equitable, values-based model that treats staff — and thus customers — in a better way. We can create what we call “Resilient Restaurants” throughout Colorado.

Some studies and states’ experiences show that extended unemployment benefits have influenced the workforce, but others don’t. It’s clear to me that there is a migration of experienced professionals leaving the industry for easier, more pleasant and higher-paying jobs.

I encourage taking a holistic view that leads to collaboration to elevate the hospitality industry together.

Our business operations are changing, the commercial landscape is changing, customer habits are changing and our workforce is changing. We can solve many of the challenges we face by redesigning the food-service business model and culture.

Wage and compensation models can be a profitable and high-leverage place to begin.

“It takes a team to make it work, and we want to reward that work. Providing higher wages to our front-of-house staff and tip-share to cooks, dishwashers and back-of-house employees enables us to ensure each of our team members has a more consistent and livable paycheck. Each employee contributes to what goes into a memorable dining experience, and we should treat them accordingly,” executive chef Terence Rogers of Sullivan Scrap Kitchen in Denver told me.

Elliot Strathmann, co-owner of Spuntino Food & Wine, agrees: “The path is clear. Saving and rebuilding restaurants is not just about supporting owners’ bottom lines — it’s about truly supporting the people who make restaurants the vibrant, wonderful spaces they can be. It’s time to raise wages and give restaurant workers, and the restaurant industry, the future they deserve.”

In addition to disrupting the lives of millions of Coloradans, COVID butchered the restaurant business. Now is the time to thoughtfully rebuild an industry that hasn’t sustainably evolved in decades.

Let’s consider how to remedy some of the problems prevalent in our workforce: the social and gender inequalities, the discrimination, harassment and biases, the wage disparity between back-of-the-house culinary staff and front-of-the-house hospitality staff, the unhealthy lifestyle choices and mental wellness challenges. Many of these serious and troublesome issues can be addressed with better compensation models and by adopting a more equitable and values-centric work culture.

This cultural shift requires business leadership, workforce development and consumer education to embed a new standard of job quality, career pathways, customer service and business profitability.

At Resilient Restaurants, we are early adopters of sustainability and social equity best practices that are helping business owners rebuild their teams and workplace culture by modifying their compensation model, eliminating unfair and sub-minimum wages, and implementing a tailored version of a tip pool or service charge. We are committed to transforming the food industry into one that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.

It’s time for a change to create a better experience for staff in the kitchen and on the floor, and importantly, for our valued customers in the dining room and on the patio.

Robert Bogatin is the director of Resilient Restaurants, a project of Good Business Colorado. Resilient Restaurants is a coalition of values-driven dining establishments that believes we can operate thriving businesses while focusing on creating healthy, employee-centric work environments.

Westword frequently publishes essays and opinion pieces on matters of interest to the community. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to [email protected], where you can also comment on this op-ed.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.