Can technology help solve cook shortage?

Posted at 6:00 AM, Feb 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-05 06:40:58-05

While many of Greater Cincinnati's new restaurants are independent, chef-driven businesses, most food-service work isn’t in the fine-dining segment.

Casual dining chains, like Nashville, Tenn.-based O’Charley’s, have long dealt with high turnover among their kitchen staff. Now, faced with fierce competition and higher customer expectations — fueled in part by the growth in independent, high-end restaurants — they’ve followed other paths to solve the cook shortage.

O’Charley’s has embraced Web-based training, said Richard Clark, who oversees operations at eight Midwest O’Charley’s restaurants. O’Charley’s employees are encouraged to use smartphones and similar devices to watch company videos on a private YouTube channel that details in-house procedures on menu preparation, he said, speaking from a booth at the Eastgate restaurant where he once worked as an assistant manager.

RELATED: Cooks in short supply in Tri-State

As chains, casual-dining restaurants face the added challenge of creating a consistent experience at all their outlets. They have the advantage, though, of spreading a technology-based solution across those same outlets.  

O'Charley's has invested heavily in kitchen technology that makes it easier to deliver a table’s meals at the same time by prioritizing orders and splitting them among the kitchen’s various stations. A meal order entered by a server, for example, automatically brings up meat orders at the grill station, sides at the vegetable station and so forth. Cooks start timers that gauge variables like meat’s cooking time as they acknowledge the order and begin cooking. The system also will tell a cook when to begin different dishes, Clark said, so that fast-cooking chicken tenders aren’t done and cold by the time a steak is cooked.

In essence, the system adapts order-timing technology that fast-food outlets have used for years to the more elaborate dishes casual-dining customers now expect. As a result, Clark said, it’s much quicker to bring an employee up to speed in the kitchen.

More elaborate preparation — tasks that require better knife skills, for example — are handled by one or two kitchen managers who have undergone further training. That insulates the operation from what remains a fairly high annual turnover rate of nearly 50 percent (although that includes unskilled workers like dishwashers, Clark said).

The average O’Charley’s outlet has about 270 seats, Clark said, and employs about 12 to 15 cooks on up to a six-cook line. There’s more built-in staff flexibility, he said, because they hire to cover the restaurant’s longer hours. “Fine-dining restaurants may only be open for dinner,” he said, meaning they’ll hire just one shift’s worth of staff. His kitchen staff is at work from 7 a.m. to midnight.

Clark said several workers he knew as an assistant manager are still at the Eastgate location. The key to retention is a question of culture, he said. He looks for people with a passion to serve. It creates an atmosphere that makes employees want to contribute, and that leads to satisfied customers, he said.

It seems to work in the Tr-State. Clark said O'Charley's outlets here have the highest average per-store sales of any market in which the company operates.

Follow Thomas Consolo on Twitter: @tconsolo_news.