- A new study from Chef's Pencil based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statics shows that employment for chefs and head cooks has dropped for two consecutive years and is down 4.3% from its peak in 2017. There were 128,600 chefs and head cooks in the U.S. in 2018.
- Conversely, the number of cooks has reached an all-time high of 2.4 million.
- The pay gap between chefs/head cooks and cooks continues to grow, with the former earning nearly twice as much as their subordinates.
The lower employment levels for chefs/head cooks versus cooks might be a bit surprising considering the growing salary discrepancy between the two jobs. According to the report, the average salary for chefs/head cooks in 2018 was $52,160, versus the average salary for cooks, at $27,580. This represents an 89.1% wage gap, versus the 57.7% wage gap between the two jobs in 2001.
A few things could be happening here. As restaurants navigate rising labor costs, they may be looking for cost savings by hiring cheaper talent and therefore offering less chef-driven, premium menu items.
Also, deep-pocketed corporate brands, hotel and casino chains and catering companies are recruiting both culinary school graduates and experienced chefs in greater numbers, exacerbating the chef shortage. The emerging cannabis industry may also be poaching some chefs away from the restaurant space.
There is also the burnout piece. A study released in 2017 found that 69% of chefs say their mental and physical health was negatively impacted by a stressful work environment. Recruitment is a challenge for such a high-stress, long-hour, inflexible environment.
Finally, this discrepancy shows the disparate growth rates of restaurant segments. In 2018, the top 150 quick-service segment grew sales by 3.1%, while fast food chains in Technomic's Top 500 grew by 440 units. Fast casual continues to outpace the entire industry, with sales of the top chains up 8% in the last year and unit count up by 1,200 restaurants. Conversely, the full-service category, including chef-driven fine dining, has experienced a retrenchment throughout the past few years.
The implications of a chef shortage are far reaching. Perhaps most notably, restaurant differentiation won't come from the menu, which could turn off a number of consumers looking for a culinary experience when they dine out. All of these factors are pushing restaurant brands to expand their benefit programs for recruitment and retention, offering parental leave, mentorship programs and more. Some restaurants are also getting creative in other ways, including changing up their operating hours and encouraging customers to buy their kitchen staff a round of beer as a workaround to tipping laws. The funds earned from the menu option are calculated each month and given as cash.
Still, there are some signs pointing to a comeback in the fine dining space, which could inspire more chefs. According to Technomic, fine dining restaurants are expected to grow more than 5% in sales this year.