Phoenix Restaurateurs Struggle to Find Good Staff; What's Up with That?

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It's been a big year for chef Gio Osso and his new restaurant, Virtu Honest Craft. The restaurant was nominated for the James Beard Award Foundation's "Best New Restaurant" award in February -- and that's on top of a heaping pile of love from local and national media alike. You'd think the chef would be drowning in résumés from cooks and servers wanting to work at one of the city and country's hottest restaurants right now. But that's just not true.

"It's been really difficult," Osso says. "We've been here less than a year, and there's been a lot of turnover."

And Osso's not alone. Restaurant owners and chefs have been telling me for months that finding good people is harder than ever. Everyone has their own ideas about why, but it seems they all agree that the number of people with dedication and drive -- for both the front and back of the house -- is dwindling.

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"The thing for front of the house is that even though we're a major city, we're not a city like Chicago or New York -- we don't have lifers," Osso says. "We have more college kids where this is a job for now. It's quick money and it's fast money. But it's tough to find someone who really has a passion for it the way we do."

It's not hard to believe that with the decline of upscale dining, there's also been a decline in people who see waiting tables as a career. Perhaps career servers, at least in this city, are becoming yet another relic of a bygone era. They'll join sommeliers and pastry chefs on the list of jobs that just don't exist very much anymore.

It's sad, but it's a reality that restaurant owners like Osso have been struggling with for years.

Osso's also been struggling with things behind the bar.

"I love the whole mixology thing, I really truly do," the chef says. "However, I think that 90 percent of the mixologists in this town at this time are so wrapped up with the celebrity of it that they're losing focus on the actual job itself."

"It's kind of putting it little bit of a taste in my mouth about this whole mixology thing," he adds.

It's undeniable that the folks responsible for cocktails are getting more attention now than ever but they're not the only one who might be suffering from inflated egos, at least according to German Osio, owner of Central Bistro and Local Bistro.

"When I went through school a big part of your professionalism was working your way up through the ranks," Osio says. "It was more about pulling yourself through the ranks of the restaurant. It showed your character."

"It's more and more difficult to find those people," he says. "Culinary schools have boosted self confidence in a negative way."

Osio says he thinks it's a generational problem. One that's only been exacerbated by the Food Network and other media that have glamorized the food and beverage industry. He also thinks the problem is particularly bad here, in a town where the food scene is generally seen as not fully developed.

But chef Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe and Barrio Queen has her own idea of what's caused staffing shortages.

"I'm not going to sugarcoat it: SB 1070 really hurt Arizona," she says. "I don't know if other states are having the problem, but here in Arizona, the workforce is becoming very scarce."

Esparza says she's had more problems at Barrio Queen, which opened in 2012, than at Barrio Cafe, which opened over a decade ago. She says she watched staff leave her restaurants and others in the wake of the 2010 immigration law, though the biggest effects were on the back of the house.

The sheer number of restaurants in town these days may also be contributing to the issue, says Citizen Public House chef and owner Bernie Kantak.

"We think that everybody works for Sam Fox at this point," Kantak laughs, though he acknowledges he's been "very fortunate" with the staff at both Citizen and The Gladly.

Kantak, who worked at Cowboy Ciao in Scottsdale for 11 years, says he's not discouraged by the fact that chefs and cooks want to move from restaurant to restaurant. In fact, he says he's "a little jealous" he didn't do so himself.

No matter when the cause, the inability of restaurant owners and chefs to find good support staff is one that should worry anyone who enjoys the experience of dining out. As Esparza puts it, we're moving to a mindset where a more casual restaurant or lower priced food comes with an expectation of lower quality service. And that just shouldn't -- or at least, wasn't always -- the case.

"It become that the price point your paying is the quality of server you're going to get," Esparza says. "It's unfortunate."

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