Freestore Foodbank, CityLink ramp up culinary programs during restaurant employee shortage

Program cooking up new careers, brighter futures
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jun 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-04 00:09:10-04

CINCINNATI — When Betsy Eicher and Randy Reichelderfer reopened Urban Grille on Main to indoor dining in April, the owners found themselves facing a problem they did not expect as pandemic restrictions began easing.

"You can't get people to show up," Reichelderfer said. "You can't get ... you can't hire people."

Eicher, like many, partially blamed the employee shortage on the additional unemployment many people are receiving through the federal government: bonus stimulus money that will end in Ohio on June 26.

"People are being compensated to stay home through stimulus and unemployment and in our opinion, it takes away the urgency of coming out and seeking viable employment," Eicher said.

But that urgency to find workers in the restaurant industry is nothing new, said Tony Lavatori, who oversees Cincinnati Cooks. The program has been training people to work in the restaurant industry through the Freestore Foodbank for more than 20 years.

"I'll say this, I've been here nine years as of next month," he said. "The first two years, we spent a lot of time calling restaurants, letting them know we were there. Since about the last seven years, we've not had to make those phone calls. We get a lot of phone calls. In the last three years, the phone call level has just, uh, doubled. I got four phone calls today myself. Everybody is looking for help."

Cincinnati Cooks offers a 10-week program that teaches participants how to work in restaurants through the use of Freestore Foodbank's industrial kitchen on Central Parkway.

"During the program, we provide them with meals and transportation to the program and meals to take home to their families at the end of the day," Lavatori said.

The program also hosts job fairs to help get graduates to work.

Dani Watkins, chief program officer for CityLink Center, said her organization offers a similar culinary training program. It, too, is experiencing the same demand from the restaurant industry for trained workers.

"At first we were wondering: Is there going to be a need because restaurants were struggling with COVID and shutting down or close or going back with hours?" she said. "And so, we weren't sure if there would be a need on the other side and then all of a sudden we were like no, there is a huge need. There aren't enough cooks in the kitchen, so to speak."

During the pandemic, both CityLink Center and Cincinnati Cooks were forced to scale back the number of participants allowed in their programs due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Both now are preparing to gear back up to alleviate the restaurant industry's dire need for help, Watkins and Lavatori said.

"We are hoping by next month to get back to full capacity," Lavatori said. "We know the demand is there. I'm just graduating half the members we did a year ago."

Once Cincinnati Cooks is back to full operation, the program plans to graduate up to 34 participants per 10-week course.

Through its partnership with the Findlay Market Association, CityLink Center hopes to graduate 120 skilled kitchen workers per year, Watkins said.

"We have a place to play in this space and we're really excited about that," she said. "That's allowing us to bring back and relaunch the Findlay culinary training."

Lavatori said the FreeStore FoodBank is planning to build a new facility that will allow the organization to graduate even more restaurant workers next year.

And while those graduating classes might not help restaurant owners the Eicher and Reichelderfer right now, Lavatori said he is more than happy to help any business owner now by putting them in contact with past Cincinnati Cooks graduates.

Meanwhile, CityLink Center provides mentorship opportunities to its program participants.

"You can call me at 513-482-3670," Lavatori said. "I'm Tony. We'll take your calls."

People interested in either program also can visit or