By Kitchen United CEO Jim Collins
Almost five years ago I bought a restaurant in Montrose, CA near my home. On an early New Year’s morning, I unlocked the back door and walked up the stairs into what turned out to be an amazing journey.
When I walked into my own restaurant kitchen for the first time it was dark. That wasn’t that big a problem, there were light switches. But I quickly realized that my knowledge of how things worked stopped, literally, there. The previous owner had had a party in the restaurant the night before and there was an enormous stack of dirty – well, everything – in the dish room. The handles on the sinks don’t work like they work at home… (My first Uh Oh moment).
Over the course of the next year, I put myself through the tough and dirty coursework and learned to operate in a restaurant kitchen. Starting with having “Franky” teach me how to run the dishwasher and use the two-stage valves in the dish room, and then learning how to operate the pizza oven without burning myself (much), fryers, stoves, chemical dispensers, etc.
I was the owner. When I wanted to know how to do something I could just ask. But I noticed that when we hired someone, typically involving a practice called “staging” (pronounced stahjing), the challenge for the prospective new team member was somewhat daunting. Frankly, if someone didn’t have any experience the chances that they’d get hired were basically zero. I will admit that at my restaurant, Town, it’s pretty much still that way. These days we simply advertise for people with experience and that’s what we hire. Our little restaurant doesn’t have the bandwidth to train people from scratch.
But that challenge has continued to nag…
When I got to Kitchen United I knew that one of the bigger challenges restaurants were facing was the challenge of finding members for their kitchen teams. Not just in KU locations, but in restaurants across the country changes in administration policies, rising minimum wage, and very little unemployment combine to shrink the available workforce.
There’s a dichotomy there because there are a lot of people who would actually like to work in restaurants. Many of these folks are wrongly considered unemployable. People coming out of prison or out of rehabilitation programs are often tagged as unwanted, but many of these folks can become the most dedicated workers a company can hire.
We looked at a lot of the programs in the market. Almost all are frankly too much. Restaurants want to hire people. What they need are people who effectively understand the restaurant kitchen vocabulary, the do’s and don’ts, have some basic skills, and the right certifications. In Kitchen United University (KUU) we created a program that effectively gives these people the tools they need to make it through their first week on the job in a restaurant kitchen. The course takes two days. At the end of the course, we host a job fair. Any restaurants, whether KU clients or not, can come to the fair to interview the graduates.
Sometimes the answer to the hard questions is simple. What is required is a change in attitude and perspective, and a little compassion and effort. I’m proud of my team for taking the initiative to launch this program and I can’t wait to see where it goes as KU grows.
Jim Collins is the Chief Executive Officer of Kitchen United.
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Featured photo by Bree McCool