Chad Coulter, co-owner of wine and tapas bar LouVino, described the severity of the restaurant labor shortage in Louisville in this way: “If we are willing to take passed out employees out of ice bins, then there’s a staff shortage — let’s just stay that.”
Coulter was referencing a story he’d heard about an employee at an unnamed restaurant — not LouVino — that he said opened and closed in a relatively short period of time.
The labor shortage has been a hot topic in the Louisville restaurant industry for at least the past year if not longer. As the economy improved, the restaurant labor pool tightened, and as new restaurants open in Louisville, they are fighting with existing establishments for employees.
“The hard thing about the restaurant business is it’s a people business,” said Fernando Martinez, a partner at Olé Restaurant Group. “I think hiring to stock restaurants is becoming harder and harder everyday.”
To succeed, restaurants need good food, value and service, said Susan Hershberg, owner of Wiltshire Pantry. At least two of those requires having a great staff.
Coulter, Hershberg and Martinez were all panelists at Wednesday’s Venture Connectors luncheon.
Although Louisville restaurant owners are struggling to find quality employees, competition isn’t a bad thing, the three restaurateurs said.
“I think it makes the food scene and the city better,” Martinez said. “As a chef, you have to stay fresh.”
While some restaurants have closed, citing the increasingly competitive market, Hershberg said that the growing number of eateries also have helped build up the local food economy. More people are getting into food production, growing crops or raising livestock.
“That’s because we now have more and more restaurants who are able to buy locally,” she said.
Coulter said he doesn’t believe the local restaurant industry has peaked.
“I don’t think we have reached that tipping point yet in Louisville,” he said, noting more restaurants will open as more hotels, apartment buildings and condominium open downtown.
Developers are going to want to include a restaurant in those projects, Coulter said, adding that he thinks the competition will elevate the food scene.
In a past life, Coulter worked as a pharmacist, so he’s the numbers guy at LouVino, but Hershberg and Martinez both said they had to learn to care about the numbers.
“I am not driven or motivated by numbers so I have to really dig in,” Hershberg said, admitting she is still bad about checking her food inventory as often as she should.
A big reason some restaurants close is because chefs are so focused on making beautiful and delicious food and don’t pay enough mind to cost of inventory, overhead and sales numbers, Martinez said.
After migrating to Louisville, Martinez said, he started working in restaurants as a dishwasher before moving on to other positions.
“I wanted to learn the business as a whole,” he said. “I worked a few years for Chili’s Grill & Bar, not because their food is good but because they have really good systems.”
The rounded education has served Martinez well. Olé Restaurant Group currently operates six concepts in Louisville.
“We’re trying to combine the quality of the mom and pop restaurant with the corporate background,” he said. “To me, that is a winning combination.”
And in case anyone was wondering where restaurateurs eat, the trio ended the Venture Connectors telling the crowd what their favorite local restaurant is.
Coulter said Joy Luck, an Asian fusion restaurant on Bardstown Road. Martinez praised chef Bruce Ucán’s Mayan Cafe in NuLu, and Hershberg said she’s found herself eating at Con Huevos, a Mexican breakfast and lunch spot on Frankfort Avenue, quite a bit.
“I’m slightly addicted,” she said.