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Finding the right crew in competitive hiring market

Hurricane Grill & Wings franchise owner Bob Engel

Hurricane Grill & Wings franchise owner Bob Engel at the new Garden City restaurant. (July 2, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

With unemployment on Long Island still over 6 percent, one might assume employers would have the luxury of picking and choosing the best of the best. Not necessarily.

Bob Engel, owner of a Hurricane Grill & Wings franchise in Syosset, had such a hard time filling positions for a second restaurant in Garden City that he had to delay his planned mid-June opening. It wasn't difficult hiring management, bartenders and servers. The struggle was in hiring kitchen help -- cooks and prep people, he says.

"We felt it would be easy to fill positions. The restaurant is across from Roosevelt Field, accessible to public transportation," says Engel, 44, who finally opened last week with all 75 positions filled. In addition to the financial impact of the delayed opening, he says it was a scramble to train new staff.


Reach your audience

Hiring in the restaurant and hospitality industry is extremely competitive, says Barbara Haug, owner of Patrice & Associates in Smithtown, a franchise specializing in restaurant, hotel and casino recruiting.

Engel posted help-wanted ads on Craigslist and Facebook, and displayed "Now hiring" banners at the restaurant. He encouraged Syosset employees to refer people for positions, offering them cash incentives for doing so, but says, "We just weren't getting applicants."

Haug says writing employment ads "is an art." Businesses should "emphasize what's in it for the candidate. Don't just list requirements and job description. Include the future opportunities that exist and why they would want to work for this particular company."

Engel says there is room for growth in the kitchen at his restaurant. "You can become a kitchen manager, and I also want to open locations in Manhasset and Massapequa, so there will be opportunities," he says.

But Haug said Craigslist isn't the best place to post openings. It's "good for one day, and then the ad moves down the list," she says.

As for Engel's Facebook postings, she says social media is not particularly effective in the restaurant industry. "Restaurant people work 60-65 hours a week, and when they come home at 2 a.m., or on their days off, they are not going onto Facebook to look for positions. They are not in a job where they are sitting at a desk jumping on and off Facebook."

And as the economy improves, there are new restaurants opening, meaning there is increased competition for the same "piece of the pie," Haug says.


Broaden the search

Clark Wolf of Clark Wolf Co., a food, restaurant and hospitality consulting firm with offices in New York City, says perhaps Engel was not reaching the right labor pool.

"For whatever reason, the word-of-mouth usually associated with building a kitchen crew" didn't kick in, Wolf says. "Who works in restaurants in Garden City? Are there immigrant groups there? Do they have their own language newspapers, churches and schools? That's where he should advertise." Restaurant owners also can get leads from their vendors, Wolf says. "They are at the back door of every other restaurant and know who works where."

Even though unemployment is still historically high, "other restaurants are having hiring issues too," adds Jeffrey Sonenblum, president of EJ Total Staffing, a Melville firm specializing in restaurant, retail and hospitality hiring. "Even at the management level some places are having challenges."

Engel knows he's not alone. He says Hurricane has two other new franchises, in Manorville and Poughkeepsie, where the owners are having trouble filling positions.

Says Sonenblum, "Despite the popularity of cooking shows and the Food Network, it's a long road to becoming a chef. The hours are long, and the pay's not great. I'm not so sure people are excited to get into this business."



Company: Hurricane Grill & Wings

Owner/franchisee: Bob Engel

Founded: 2012

Employees: 46, Syosset; 75, Garden City

Revenues: Over $1 million

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