Jayson Cullen has never seen so many desperate restaurant managers in his life.
“Pretty much every job I get these days, I got because some kitchen guy or some restaurant owner is just desperate,” says Cullen, who lives in Mesa and left a career in behavioral health two years ago to work in hospitality and kitchen management. “They’re hiring me to do jobs I’m not qualified for, and then training me on the spot.”
Recently, a sushi place offered Cullen a job even though he’d never made a tuna roll before. “Another time I told a chef I didn’t know how to run a wood-fire pizza oven, and he offered to teach me,” Cullen reports. “He spent 15 minutes with me, and I was a wood-fire pizza oven cook for the next three weekends.”
These jobs came to Cullen by way of Qwick, a Phoenix-based temp agency that’s expanding in all directions lately, in large part thanks to the colossal worker shortage that’s plaguing the service industry.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down thousands of restaurants last spring, many workers found themselves collecting unemployment checks juiced by federal incentives that earned them more than working did. Those incentives were so sweet that, according to the National Restaurant Association, only about half of the nation’s foodservice personnel returned to work once it was safe to. Why work, servers and dishwashers and line cooks said, when the jobs are lousy and not working paid better? Post-pandemic, restaurants continue to reopen, but staffing remains an issue.
“It was where the unemployable went for work. So we built a company of talented restaurant workers. Maybe they prefer moving around a little, or they work in a nice place that can only give them 30 hours a week. We can give them that extra shift.”
Gig work agencies, the app-driven, 21st-century version of the temp service, existed before the pandemic hobbled the service industry. But Baxter and his cronies saw the need in a flailing industry and leapt into the breach. Spurred on by the national server shortage, the company recently launched in Chicago and will be expanding into six more markets by the end of the year.
“We’ve got a 98 percent shift-fill rate and more than 85,000 hospitality professionals on our platform,” Baxter boasts. “We vet all of them personally and do all the background checks. So if you’re short-handed, you can use our app to hire a server, a bartender, or kitchen help in just a couple of minutes.”
But is replacing waiters and bartenders with potentially untrained temp workers really the answer restaurant owners are looking for?
At least one local operator says no.
“Getting someone in here to fill a void for a week or a night?” asks Brandon Juniper, founder of Scottsdale’s Cook and Craft. “That’s not something that fits our concept. I’m adamant about our servers getting to know regular clientele. Just because restaurants are struggling, that’s not our guests’ fault. They shouldn’t be punished because we’re in the middle of a crisis.”
Juniper continues: “A bartender from a temp agency isn’t going to see you walk in and start mixing your favorite drink for you. Maybe if you were looking to hire a prep cook, where you need someone to chop an onion or wash dishes, okay. But for front-of-the-house stuff, I’d rather grind out an extra shift myself than get some stranger in here.”
But using a temp agency increasingly appears to be a dirty little secret in Juniper’s trade. Of four local restaurants who routinely use the platform, none interviewed for this story wanted to be quoted.
“Let’s say that I don’t want my guests to know their meal was prepared by some guy I met when he showed up at work today,” says one kitchen manager. “You do what you have to, and I have to staff my kitchen until I can get someone permanent in here.”
Qwick seems to still be working out various kinks — some of which sound like more of the same stuff that got restaurants into hot water in the first place.
“There’s this new trend in double-booking,” Cullen says of gig work. “The restaurant will hire two workers for the same shift in case the one guy doesn’t show up. If we both show up, the second guy gets paid for half of his shift and sent home. So, you know, you can make 80 bucks and not have to work at all. That’s expensive, but I guess managers will do anything these days to stay open.”
Even, Cullen says, bending Qwick’s rules.
“About five months ago, I got a job at a Scottsdale golf club, one of those one-percenter places with Maseratis parked out front.” The banquet manager liked Cullen and offered him a job. “He said, ‘I don’t want to use Qwick, just come in and I’ll pay you by check.’ He ended up offering me a job that lasted four months.”
Cullen seems unfazed that maybe Qwick was harmed by that transaction.
“I had a one-hour orientation with Qwick when they hired me,” he explains. “No one mentioned the company’s policy on poaching.”
But that is exactly the sort of chicanery Juniper means to avoid. “The pandemic shut us down three weeks after our grand opening,” he says of Cook and Craft. “It was either work really hard to personalize our take-out service, or close for good.”
When Cook and Craft finally reopened last month, all those people Juniper romanced through his take-out window came back to dine in person.
“I’m not going to repay those people by bringing in an untrained stranger to wait on them or cook for them, just because I’m short-staffed,” Juniper insists. “My customers deserve more than a temp worker.”