At least one local restaurant is getting so desperate to find staff they’re willing to use customers as headhunters. In a recent email sent out from John Howie Restaurants, the hospitality group offered a $500 dining credit to those who refer potential workers to them, with the amount redeemable at whichever John Howie establishment eventually hires the referred candidate. The language in the email indicates that it doesn’t matter whether the potential employee already has another restaurant job.
“While out and about, have you come across a stellar server? An unforgettable bartender? An amazing cook? Someone who made your dining experience one to remember? If the answer is yes, we want to meet them,” the email reads. “Whether your candidate is a mere stranger who bussed your table like a table has never been bussed before or someone living under your own roof, send them our way.”
It’s been well documented that restaurants have had a tough time staffing up in recent months, not just in Seattle but across the country. The reasons are myriad and go beyond the overly simplistic narrative of generous unemployment benefits, from workers focused on full-time childcare when schools were closed for in-person learning, to those simply not willing to take the risk of working at restaurants or bars during an ongoing, deadly pandemic. Even states that ended the $300 weekly unemployment benefits boost early saw no clear job gains.
Nearly two million restaurant and bar workers lost their jobs between March and April 2020, and many of those employees have since moved onto opportunities in other sectors. Those who decided to return to restaurants are in high demand, and the Washington Hospitality Association noted that the industry statewide faces around an 80,000-worker shortfall.
In order to try to entice more workers, several restaurants have offered hiring bonuses, including Tom Douglas’s pizzeria Serious Pie and Belltown gastropub Local 360 (which offered $500 each per recent job listings), as well as the Pacific Northwest chain McMenamins (offering $1,000 at its Queen Anne and Capitol Hill restaurants). Others have tried to boost starting wages, a strategy that seems to have shocked economic experts for some reason.
It’s unclear whether the John Howie Restaurants group had pursued more worker-focused incentives before it conceived of its “customer as recruiter” plan. The email doesn’t mention anything about what the starting salaries are for the open positions at its various restaurants, such as Howie’s high-end namesake steakhouse or Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar in Bellevue, nor does it discuss hiring bonuses or benefits. A recent job listing for a bartender position at John Howie Steak was similarly vague, stating that the restaurant has “a strong guest first culture” and wants someone with “the ability to create a highly motivated working environment.”
Regardless of any potential perks to working at John Howie, it’s not exactly the best look for a high-profile, well-funded hospitality company to go on the hunt for staffers at other restaurants, particularly as smaller places would likely need all the help they can get these days. Still, the restaurant group seems to be standing by the move.
“Every restaurant is experiencing staff shortages. Our restaurants are no different,” says a rep for John Howie Restaurants. “We have numerous openings and are looking to hire people we can train and coach, including those currently working in food service interested in making the jump to fine dining or adding a second part-time job. Our restaurants are successful because we have exceptional professionals. We just need more of them right now. Chef Howie has always prioritized taking care of his people and he will continue to offer competitive compensation and benefits to attract and retain the best talent.”