Diners are chowing down on meal deals during this week’s Lancaster City Restaurant Week, one of two such events now held here each year.
And in the middle of it all, the members of the Lancaster County chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association face the challenges of this growth as well as new trends in the hospitality industry.
On a recent Monday morning, at a table by the front window of The Pressroom Restaurant, four former and current officers of that chapter gathered to talk about a few of the issues their profession is facing.
The state association, with chapters across the commonwealth, promotes networking among its restaurant and lodging members, provides discounts on such things as employment services, gives seminars about the business, offers food safety certification classes and more.
Sitting down to answer some questions about their industry were Barry Kidd, vice president of hotels for Dommel’s Hotel Management (Country Inn of Lancaster and the Your Place restaurants) and president of the association’s Lancaster County chapter; Robert Commero, general manager of the Pressroom and vice president of the chapter; TJ Quinn, food director at Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse and past chapter president and current chapter board member; and Mick Owens, owner of Mick’s All American Pub (locations in Manheim, Lititz and Lancaster) and past chapter president and current association board member.
Are there any categories of culinary employees you are having trouble hiring for your restaurants?
Owens: All of them.
Commero: Market saturation has really spread the talent thin. I just want somebody with integrity and (who can say) “I want to come to work.” If you have that one thing, you can train them. ... I’m on the occupational advisory committee at the Lancaster CTC (Career & Technology Center) for hospitality — just trying to get kids who are coming right out of high school who are not going to go to culinary school right away, or want to save up or whatever they’re doing, to try to keep them in the area.
Kidd: I’m on the board of HACC’s hospitality program, and their students, 99.9 percent have a job before they ever graduate. (Businesses) are always there recruiting these people. And it’s just amazing how that has sort of flipped.
Owens: We have line cooks right now, getting $40,000 to $50,000 a year. We’re guaranteeing them 10 hours (of) overtime. We’re bringing them in, and they’re at $13 to $14 an hour. So ... that last 10 hours, they’re making $21 an hour.
What’s causing this employee shortage?
Commero: Business is booming, which is good. ... But the job pool catches up with you.
Owens: I think there’s also been a little bit of ... people don’t see being a restaurant worker as a career. They see it as a job. I don’t think a lot of parents are excited when their kids tell them they’re going to go cook in a restaurant. There’s some of the stigma attached to the job. But it’s a great career.
Kidd: You’re looking at that (4.1 percent) unemployment nationwide, which is no unemployment, really. That’s part of it also. We’ve worked hard in the (association) ... to try to change that perception, to let these kids know that you can do really well as a career.
What are some of the positives about working for restaurants?
Commero: It’s one of the last industries where you can come in at an entry-level position and work your way up, and do something very accomplished. You can achieve things at a high level, starting as a dishwasher.
Quinn: But you have to have that horsepower, I call it. You have to want to work. You have to show up. ... We’ll take anybody who wants to achieve, and is willing to work, and likes to do some critical thinking and can move through the process. It is a very exciting career. I mean, every day, it’s problem-solving. It’s putting out fires. You have to be intelligent to be successful at it. It really is a great career for a lot of people.
What’s the status of new restaurants coming into the county?
Owens: This is the best we could compile: In 2017, we had 48 new, full-service restaurants open. We’re not counting little coffee shops or bakeries that need a health license. For full-service restaurants, I’m conservatively estimating that we’re going to be looking for 600 to 700 more restaurant employees from 2017 to 2018. So it’s fantastic for the consumer, and we are doing our best to keep our costs and our labor in mind.
Kidd: My wife and I go out to eat at least once a week, sometimes twice a week, and we’re always amazed at how many choices there are in Lancaster County. ... Boy, the breweries that have popped up — it’s amazing.
Quinn: These large grocery stores that are opening — there are two that are going to (be) popping up here soon —that are restaurants on their own. So they’re also competitively putting wages out there that we can’t compete with for opening wages. But, being in the retail end at Kitchen Kettle Village, I see some of the applicants that come in. We have some retail positions that are also food-based. In my department, the culinary world, we’re losing chefs that are applying for (jobs as) meat-and-cheese people. The industry has grown so much. We’re struggling in that area; we’re losing a lot of people to retail.
How does the split between Lancaster County’s traditional and new, trendy restaurants affect your businesses?
Kidd: The traditional ones are changing. ... To get a family-style meal, there aren’t many (restaurants) doing it anymore. Hershey Farm does a buffet, Miller’s (Smorgasbord) does a buffet.
Owens: I would say that restaurants probably encapsulate capitalism to a “T.” If there is a market to sell something, a restaurant will open to satisfy that need. And if your sales are dropping from what you’re offering, you’re going to evolve. I think it can be both (traditional and trendy).
Commero: Callaloo (restaurant in Lancaster) is Trinidadian. It’s a very specific thing. But they’re doing very well.
Kidd: I think there’s going to be, over the years, a huge metamorphosis, just because of the next population, these young kids that are coming up. A lot of them, they want to live downtown. They want to be able to walk over to that little store and get their groceries for the night.
Commero: And you’ve also got Lititz. In downtown Lititz, it’s small, but there’s a lot going on. Ephrata is trying to evolve its downtown.
Owens: I think the key to the evolution is that a place remains a size that is commensurate with the volume they’re going to do. I’m not sure Lancaster would support a 400-seat restaurant that’s serving Trinidadian food.
Commero: But with 50 seats, it can do quite well.
Owens: I think ... you reach a saturation point. Once you have so many choices, it really does dilute the business.
Kidd: You see a lot of these niche restaurants come and go. When you’re trying to just serve one aspect (or one type of cuisine), it’s tough.
Quinn: At Kitchen Kettle Village, we’ve been there since 1954, so when people are vacationing there, your expectation is that when you come back, it’s always the same. ... We have found some ways of dealing with that. Our new marketing is “tradition with a twist.” So we’re trying to update and upgrade and up our game on culinary and shopping experiences. We’re trying to appeal to a lot of different people; we have older groups of people who have been coming there for a long time, and then we have this newer group of people who expect trendy food and different presentation and service.
Commero: Ethnic diversity. That’s what it is. That’s what fuels all these little places. ... Like Himalayan (Curry and Grill) or La Cocina. It starts with the local population, and then it’s successful because it’s just good food.
Owens: Thirty years ago ... I ran a Mexican restaurant. You had only a small percent of the population that wanted to try different kinds of foods. Now, I would say we have a large percentage of the population that wants to experiment and try different foods. This county had a very much meat-and-potatoes diet 30 years ago.
Commero: Center-of-the-plate protein, like the Stockyard and the Log Cabin. That’s where you went out to eat, if it wasn’t Ponderosa or Sizzler.
Owens: I think restaurateurs were always open to serving whatever the trends were. It’s just great that the county is now evolved to the point where they want to support all these types of (restaurants). We are wings and beer; we are a pub. But we have seared tuna on the menu now. We have hummus. Those aren’t things you would have typically seen in a sports bar.