As I was learning my barbecue trade, I made a name for myself as a traveling sideshow (also known as a caterer), towing my smoker around and showing up to events like Santa Claus, hog and gallons of beer behind me. (But I had a few legs up on the fat man. I don't judge. And I don't need cookies.)
I'm often asked why I gave up the freewheeling life of catering to settle down with the headaches of opening a permanent restaurant. One of my answers is staffing.
Without a brick and mortar restaurant, retaining staff is pretty difficult. I'm talking about good staff—people looking to make a career serving craft beer and barbecue to the public. As a caterer, I was constantly hiring people who couldn't get hired elsewhere. Now don't get me wrong—I loved my merry band of degenerates who helped me smoke hog at my events. One of the saddest points of my life was when last summer ended and I accepted I wouldn't see my crew on a weekly basis anymore.
But finding, training, and keeping staff around—people who are willing to learn and help grow a business—is a challenge without a room of your own.
In a previous life, I managed research teams covering three financial products located in Hong Kong, Budapest, and right here in New York City. I had an army of interns at my disposal to build new products, conduct data analysis, and, if I really wanted to, conquer a small Latin American country. None of that management training prepared me for securing a crew in the hospitality industry. As we gear up looking for team members at my first restaurant, here's a look at a few common archetypes of staffers that I hired, fired, and unfortunately rehired in the interim.
The Friendly Neighborhood Cokehead
In my entire boring adult life, I have never had an encounter with cocaine. Actually, I was shocked cokeheads were still around. (Isn't meth supposed to be our vice of choice these days? Coke just sounds so '80s.) But time and time again I get the friendly neighborhood cokehead, ready to do whatever work I can offer, front or back of house.
A jacked-up cocaine addict actually does make a great employee. They have energy for days. They're exuberant. And they're friendly.
The only problem with cokeheads is their expiration date. After dealing with a few, I've set that date at three weeks from date of hire. After the third week you'll start getting the stomach issue excuse. The stomach issue is very useful for cokeheads—you gain access to plenty of bathroom time to refuel, and it's not as flaky of an excuse as having a headache.
But cokeheads are also self-correcting. You never need to fire them because they naturally disappear on benders. When I see them again after a month in rehab or prison, they're sober and good to go for another three weeks. It's actually gotten to a point where I plot my staffing around phases of the cokehead cycle.
The great injustice of the American prison system is the absence of any reform for the incarcerated. Many violent offenders spend over a decade locked away from society, only with no help to integrate back in after they serve their time. When you spend that long in jail, all you know is the sociological framework of jail. It dictates your persona, your mannerisms.
When inmates do leave the prison system, one of the few lines of work available to them is restaurants. I've had plenty of ex-cons on my payroll.
Let's call one Todd. Todd had a very limited skill set. He didn't really move all that quickly and he couldn't really cook. He was, however, monstrously strong, a useful trait for working an event that involves lugging around 250-pound pigs and kegs of beer.
Todd was also the single most frightening-looking human being you will ever meet. The average badass would soil himself if he ran into Todd in a dark alley. Again, this is useful, especially when your business involves alcohol. I never had trouble at events when Todd stood guard. At the end of the day, I'd head home carrying thousands of dollars in cash. With Todd at the driver's seat, no one bothered me. Once a group of Hell's Angels bikers drove by and averted their gaze.
Beneath his menacing surface, Todd is a sensitive sweetheart. We'd spent hours talking about philosophy, how much he loved his son, and Caribbean music. I'd love to keep Todd on staff. But running a restaurant has more intricacies than private events, and it demands a broader skill set than he can offer.
Hospitality is just a stepping stone for Todd, who has little passion for the business. Todd's real passion is film, and he aims to fill the void in cinematography left by the lack of Jamaican pornography. I don't know if this is an underserved market or not. But I do know that if Todd makes it big filming porn in Jamaica, I'll be proud to have listed him among my team.
These are the chefs who have managed huge kitchens but have fallen from grace—they know the industry, they understand food costs, health department codes, the whole nine yards. And you want them, someone to be a rock in the storm, the captain to steer the ship. And they usually come pretty cheap since they've been fired once every eight months from whatever gig they were working. Asked about their choppy resume, the blame always falls on their former employers. New York City is teeming with chef burn-outs.
Chef burn-outs are normally pretty good for a month. Then you get the eye-rolls because they've been in the industry for the past three decades and you, the kid, have no idea what you're doing. They will start whining on social media about you. They will note how you're a hack willing to compromise everything. And like Icarus, they'll eventually crash, burn, and look for the next job where they'll talk smack about you.
You'll know a chef burn-out when you meet them. They've never been given their due, and big names like David Chang and Mario Batali are all overrated to them. If only restaurant owners would just simply accept their genius and do everything perfectly, money would shower from the heavens.
I really don't want to deal with chef burn-outs, I really don't. But the temptation is just so, so strong. With a practiced chef around, there's no need for me to deal with inventory. I won't have to sit there with the kitchen schedule figuring out everyone's day off.
And I know they're gonna bite me in the ass in a few months. They always do. But desperation sets in once more and yet another chef burn-out shows up at my door.
Jack of All Trades, Master of None
I want to be stoic. Cold and calculating. A "nothing personal, it's just business" boss. Unfortunately for me, I'm not. Someone shows up down on their luck and I'll probably give them a job. Enter Jack. Jack (not his real name) is in his mid 50s, and has held every single type of job known to man. He has driven tractor trailers, ran a daycare center, worked on cars, and assisted in filming for a nonprofit television station. Jack has done it all, and now he wants to be a chef.
But no one's dying to give Jack a job, and as Kantian ethics dictate, I'm picturing myself in my 50s, down on my luck, and hoping someone gives me a chance. Jack became my right hand man during my event series. If I needed something towed, Jack would be there. Jack did the overnight hog cooking. If something was broken, I'd call Jack up.
Jack was friendly and customers loved him. I love him. Every morning I'd pick him up for our catering gig of the day listening to him rant about his conspiracy theory of the day, everything from federal chemtrails to the secretive backing of international terrorism. Between conspiracy theories he'd talk about his self-published book, which lays out how legalizing polygamy would end poverty in the U.S.
Jack's only job was to cook the meats. Anything in between the time the meats go in to the time they come out, I couldn't care what he did. He could take a nap, smoke weed, watch a video. Just so long as the meats get done. But I got too comfortable with him coming in late and leaving early until I realized one day that his passion just wasn't there.
The saddest moment in any barbecue guy's professional life is when you realize that the person you're training to do the cooking just doesn't give a royal fuck about barbecue. They'd be just as happy making pizza or ramen noodles. The food was coming out awful and Jack couldn't care. "Just cover it with barbecue sauce and no one will tell the difference," he once noted.
This was a guy I had hoped would take on pitmaster duties at the Swine. He was the only one I trained in everything. But for him, at the end of the day, it was nothing more than a paycheck. Letting Jack go was no fun for me, and I was sad about it for a long while afterwards.
The Shameful Son
Here's one more story about the quirks of dealing with staffing in a restaurant. John Brown's Smokehouse, a barbecue joint in Queens where I serve as resident whole hog caterer and village idiot, had a pitmaster that we'll name Ben. Ben was a pretty decent guy who worked hard and only occasionally called in sick due to overzealous evening boozing.
One day, Ben didn't show up for work. Most certainly not the first guy to no-show at John Brown's. But at least Ben would usually call in, hungover, to let everyone know that he didn't have the wherewithal to get out of bed.
A few weeks passed, and suddenly, finally, there was a call from Ben! Apparently his parents paid a hefty tuition for his culinary school education and had higher ambitions for him than rubbing down brisket and smoking it over pecan wood. This duty was not in the shiny brochure they read. No, he was supposed to be wearing double-buttoned chef whites, sporting an erect toque, working the line over at the Hilton. His days should spent be laying edible flowers over tuna tartare and plating grand banquet dinners while a busty ice sculpture of Venus de Milo gently chilled the shrimp cocktail beneath her. His involvement in barbecue greatly dishonored the family to the extent that only his resignation or ritual suicide would restore the dignity of their family name.
Turnover in this industry is rampant and expected. There are many reasons why we in the barbecue genre have difficulty finding and keeping staff, and now we have one more to add: the risk of bringing shame to your ancestors and future descendants. Lovely.