Inner Harbor eateries starving for workers As more places open, problem gets worse, managers say

Labor market

June 18, 1998|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

With the opening of more than a half-dozen restaurants in the Inner Harbor, bringing hundreds of jobs, at least some managers say they are scrambling to find employees to meet the demand.

"I could use 15 or 20 more servers right now," said Dave Jenkins, senior manager at McCormick & Schmick's, which opened in March on Pier 5. "The caliber of people we have here is as good as we have anywhere. We just need more of them."

By Jenkins' count, there are 1,500 to 1,800 server positions in the Inner Harbor that weren't there a year ago.

"Finding and keeping good help in our industry has long been a challenge in all parts of the state," said Brendan Flanagan, a spokesman for the Restaurant Association of Maryland. "In the last couple of months, it has become a particularly big concern with our operators in the Inner Harbor area. The big restaurants that come in are certainly a draw on the existing labor pool."

Some in the industry say higher pay and bonus programs may be on the way because of the demand for labor. At least one restaurant is offering a $50 bonus to an employee who brings in a new employee who stays at least a month.

The restaurant industry brought in revenue of $8.7 billion in Maryland last year, according to the Restaurant Association of Maryland. Restaurant sales taxes of more than $436 million were collected that year.

Many fear the problem will get worse in the next few years with the opening of as many as five hotels in Baltimore.

"For quite some time, the hotels have had trouble finding employees for the variety of jobs they have," said Mary Jo McCulloch, president of the Maryland Hotel and Motel Association. "It seems to be a problem for all service areas. There don't seem to be enough employees to go around."

To combat that problem, hotel, retail and restaurant associations, and the Maryland Tourism Council, are planning to put an on-the-job training program in operation by October.

They hope to not only improve the quality of service, but to increase the length of time visitors spend in Maryland by teaching employees about attractions they can promote to their customers.

"We are concerned about keeping people happy and having them come back," McCulloch said.

Statistics reported by the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Bureau from 1995 -- the most recent available -- put the average stay for visitors to Maryland at 2.1 days, more than 40 percent shorter than the national average of 3.6 days.

Finding an applicant with the experience he wants has been especially difficult lately for Todd Jarvis, general manager at the Chart House, near the Power Plant in the Inner Harbor.

Jarvis said he rarely finds applicants knowledgeable about wines and how to pair them with foods. As a result, he said, he is changing his training program.

"We have a lot of green employees that we're constantly trying to bring up to snuff," said Jarvis, who estimates that 30 percent of his employees are new. "That starts to dilute your service. We just aren't finding the employees who are going to put it over the top for our customers."

Labor shortages can lead to unusual situations, he said.

"I've let people go for stealing, and literally the next day they've had a job at a reputable restaurant with no reference checks," Jarvis said.

Training is going to be essential to maintain service standards and retain employees, he said.

"The smart restaurants are going to be the ones that recognize that there's a need to train, and that it has to be ongoing," Jarvis said. "What you hope to hear is: 'Have you been to the Inner Harbor? They've got great restaurants, great hotels and great service.' "

There seems to be plenty of interest in at least some of the newly available jobs.

ESPN Zone, which will open next month in the Power Plant, had hundreds of applicants show up each day of its recent job fair to fill 319 openings.

It took Planet Hollywood, which opened this month, two weeks to hire 200 employees from about 5,000 applicants, spokeswoman Robin Wolfgang said. The applicant pool was similar to the one the chain found in Washington, she said.

Jarvis makes a distinction between the kinds of service offered in restaurants.

"You can open a theme restaurant with the caliber of employees who basically are order takers, not servers," he said. "But then you get restaurants that have different expectations of service, and they don't have as many qualified employees to draw from. I'm running a higher-end restaurant where food and wine knowledge is needed. It gets tough."

At McCormick & Schmick's, hiring took longer in Baltimore than in some other places locations -- a month, instead of the seven days it took in Manhattan Beach, Calif. That resulted in part from the differences in the labor pools, but also from the company's having less name recognition on the East Coast than on the West Coast, where it was founded, Jenkins said.

Initially, the restaurant hired 120 of 1,500 applicants; 30 have been added in recent months.

The impact of restaurant growth in the Inner Harbor is being felt 11 blocks north, said Jack Elsby, co-owner of the Brass Elephant on North Charles Street.

"It's a 1998 phenomenon," said Elsby, whose restaurant seats about 135 and requires a staff of about 50.

He attributes the labor shortages to the new chain and theme restaurants.

"Restaurants are opening in the Inner Harbor like crazy," he said. "I think that has a very strong impact. When you have Planet Hollywood and ESPN Zone hiring 200 or 300, people who may have looked at places like mine will wait for the places in the Inner Harbor that will be jumping from the get-go."

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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