Can Technology Save the Restaurant Industry?
There are few industries older than the restaurant industry. People have paid for others for food by bartering or with currency for centuries. It’s an industry in which cuisine and service has evolved but the core business has remained the same: people preparing and serving food to those who are willing to pay for it. The problem with industries this old is that people get entrenched in the way things are (for good or bad) and inertia is the enemy of innovation. One thing that has remained a constant in the industry: The life of a cook is HARD. Cooks are expected to work long hours and get paid very little. Cooks are passionate people. You have to be passionate to stand over a hot stove for hours and be yelled at by the head chef. It’s a thankless job because you’re behind a wall and can never see the reactions of the customers consuming your product and they can’t see you to give you recognition or praise. And yet millions of cooks go to work around the world every day because that’s what they do. Some do it for the paycheck, others do it for the passion. Either way, it’s still a tough job. It should come to no surprise that there is a global shortage of cooks. Gone are the days when someone would apprentice for many years to learn the craft and art. The new Food Network generation of cooks expect to be celebrity chefs upon completing culinary school when reality hits them with a minimum-wage ton of bricks. Restaurateurs are trying everything from eliminating tipping to using cooks as servers to compensate for the shortage of willing cooks in the kitchen. Something has to change because without cooks, there is no restaurant industry.
Last fall, my cofounder Will Pacio and I launched a new service called Pared. Will started from the bottom as a prep cook at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York and worked his way up the ladder. He knows firsthand how hard the life of a cook is. He lived Bill Buford’s Heat. Cooks are often forced to pick up two jobs to make ends meet and pay the rent. They are used to having their bank accounts frequently go negative. In order to survive, they work themselves to the bone (sometimes literally with knife cuts) and are slaves to their work schedules. They work ten days straight and burn out. It’s no wonder the average turnover in the back-of-the-house (BOH) at most restaurants is 18-months. We started Pared to address this problem for a new generation of cooks with the thought that there had to be a better way to work that was more sustainable. If technology had transformed the age-old taxi and transportation industry with Uber and Lyft, why can’t technology change the way the restaurant industry works?
Without getting into the details, we came up with a way to have experienced BOH talent work at restaurants that need extra help. We are filling in staffing gaps across some of the top restaurants in San Francisco: Iconic restaurants such as The Slanted Door, Hayes Street Grill and One Market and hot new restaurants like Lazy Bear, Little Gem and Petit Crenn. The restaurants love it, but more importantly, we are putting real money in the pockets of underpaid and underemployed restaurant workers. Cooks are able to have a flexible schedule and supplement their income doing what they loved to do. They are also getting exposure and gaining experience in new kitchens and cuisines which allows them to potentially earn more. Pared is a better way to work that is making a tangible impact in their lives. We figured out a way to allow cooks to work smarter not harder. Having someone increase their income by working more hours at the same wage doesn’t make their lives better. Technology should be used to close the gap by allowing people to improve their livelihood. The restaurant world is all about meritocracy and Pared empowers cooks to build a reputation and earn higher wages because they deserve it. We use technology to capture the data to weed out the bad eggs and low performers that cost restaurants from turnover and lost revenues of recruiting bad employees while rewarding those who are reliable and highly motivated. Technology should be used to reduce inefficiencies and transfer the savings and incremental earnings to the right people.
Victoria, a chef at Quince (2 Michelin stars), is passionate about cooking and wants to impress Chef Michael Tusk so she can someday earn his respect and trust to someday work abroad with his blessing. In order to supplement her dream, she works on Pared to pay the bills. She strongly prefers to working at other restaurants and cooking to driving for Uber to earn extra income. A chef doesn’t want to be a taxi driver.
Juan Carlos, a veteran cook from a luxury hotel, was getting paid $20 per hour but was tired of paying union dues and being told what to do. He started working on Pared and hasn’t looked back. He prefers the flexibility and is able to make enough income to replace his previous job. Now he can spend the day with his daughter if he wants to and he values that option.
Jason, a young talented cook had just left a restaurant in Oakland, before discovering Pared. He loved being able to work in a myriad of restaurants and meet new people. Through Pared he had the chance to work with elite chefs who he admired from afar like Chef Dave Cruz, former executive chef at Ad Hoc (a Thomas Keller restaurant in Yountville), at his new restaurant Little Gem. He also worked at Petit Crenn, the newest restaurant from Chef Dominique Crenn (recently awarded the World’s Best Female Chef 2016 by San Pellegrino). Jason took a week off when his family was visiting from Virginia, something that would have been difficult to do if he was working at a restaurant. He had earned enough from Pared gigs that he was able to treat his family to dinner at both at Ad Hoc and Petit Crenn. Both restaurants gave him a discount because he had worked with Chef Cruz and Chef Crenn. Jason credits Pared with giving him opportunities that he would not have otherwise had access to. He recently took a job as a garde manger at Petit Crenn and plans to continue to work with Pared.
These are only three stories of many talented folks working on Pared who have bettered their careers. Our technology enables them to find opportunities and earn additional income by building transparency into the supply and demand of the San Francisco market. Technology should empower workers and not just managers. Tim O’Reilly has been at the forefront of the “future of work” discourse. In his Medium post titled “Workers in a World of Continuous Partial Employment”, O’Reilly notes:
There are two different approaches to using technology to manage labor. One provides data and control solely to managers, disempowering workers and minimizing their costs to improve company profits; the other offers data to both managers and workers, giving workers agency, the freedom to work when and how much they want.
O’Reilly sees that we are at a crossroads in how technology can transform the way we traditionally view models of work across industries to benefit all stakeholders involved. As it applies to the restaurant industry, Pared is giving workers the agency to pick the jobs they want to work, at the wage they believe they deserve, at the time and place of their choosing. We are bringing together mobile apps, databases, payment processing and logistics to create a user experience that satisfies the needs of both workers and restaurant operators. Restaurants are fully staffed with vetted workers. Workers have flexible schedules and earn higher wages. Technology makes it possible for everyone to win. As an entrepreneur, there’s nothing more rewarding than knowing you are creating something that can change the lives of people for the better. We still have a long way to go with Pared, but helping cooks like Victoria, Juan Carlos and Jason is a great start.