I’ve done everything I can think of to retain cooks. Why am I still having issues?

cook in kitchen
The need for cooks can feel like a bottomless pit. / Photo: Shutterstock


I saw your piece on retaining cooks. My honest reaction was “Yeah, so what?” I do all that. I still constantly need cooks. What now?

– Owner-Operator


As I covered recently, there seems to be constant demand for skilled cooks. My colleagues and I have previously written about strategies for recruitment and retention. But what if things are still not working?

In speaking with operators, the need for cooks can feel like a bottomless pit. More cooks, especially coming out of a slow winter for some, means you can open more hours and do more volume, for which you need still more cooks.

One thing I always emphasize in this column is to be sure you are treating the problem and not the symptom. OK, you need more cooks. You and everyone else. But take a critical look at why you need more cooks. Of course, you have to have a baseline of staffing in place. But do you need cooks to deliver a large or overly complicated menu? To make items that are not selling particularly well or don’t have very high margins? To make items that you can source more reliably than making in house?

Labor challenges in restaurants are not going away. Think about ways you can streamline your operation to maintain a good guest experience with a smaller team. For example, JBH Advisory Group has developed a low-labor operational model using sous-vide cooked proteins, pre-cut vegetables, and ready-made sauces and bakery items, making the menu very much “plug-and-play.”

Its CEO, Brian Berger, says, “Within SVK Food Hall, we have very intentionally created a simplified production process that broadens the available labor pool to any individual with a good attitude that wants to work. We have spent years looking closely at each step required in every procedure in the kitchen, and worked to create processes that allow us to operate more efficiently and supports recruiting and retention efforts.Additionally, our model eliminates opportunities for accidents, as we eliminated the equipment and tasks that carry the highest risk of injury and foster an easier, safer work environment.”

My advice is to start with small changes to an existing concept that can reduce one or more spots on your line or in your prep kitchen. Do the math on make-or-buy scenarios, especially with rising wages, looking for opportunities to work smarter. Berger says, “Employees today are looking for a much more relaxed, predictable, and safe working environment. The old kitchen “pressure cooker” mentality doesn’t work anymore.”

More on streamlining operations here.