The growing wave of high-calibre restaurants opening in China’s major cities is doing nothing to ease the challenge of finding good staff. New arrivals will likely be welcomed by diners but can restaurateurs find the talent they need to offer international levels of service?
"It’s all about the training," says Michelle Garnaut, founder of the M restaurant group. "You can’t expect a young Chinese to know where to put a soup spoon when they’ve never seen one. But they’re young and malleable so you can kind of shape them."
The problem, however, is finding enough people to train.
"The real challenge is getting people to apply," says Scott Minoie, managing partner of Element Fresh. The company has just opened its eighth Shanghai outlet and is working on a third in Beijing. The firm runs regular job fairs but is constantly operating without sufficient staff, he says.
Garnaut is also short of staff at Capital M, which opened in September. About 20 percent of the restaurant’s employees left a few days after opening, finding the work tougher than expected, she says.
A strong work ethic and confident personality are crucial but working in a Western restaurant also requires "a certain level of intelligence", says Minoie. "If they [waiters] don’t speak good English, they might need to study on their own."
Attracting this calibre of person to the service industry, often looked down on in China, is tough. "Getting past the parents can be difficult. One girl convinced her parents that she was working as a flight attendant," says Minoie.
Restaurants in Beijing have also had to compete with the surge in new hotels that opened before the Olympic Games. The hotels often offer higher salaries and at least appear to provide better career development and training opportunities. Minoie says strict salary guidelines at Element Fresh make it impossible to retain staff by raising wages. "This has hurt us. But we’ve also had people leaving for hotels and then coming back when they found the training was not all it was made out to be."
Upside of the downside
Like in other industries, the downturn has slightly eased the recruitment bottleneck. More Chinese that have been trained in Switzerland or the UK are returning home to look for work. It has also become easier to find foreign restaurant managers willing to head east, says Josh Reich, founder of US-based hospitality recruitment firm JDRQuest. The company recently opened an office in Shenzhen to service growing requests from China.
"There are not enough jobs in Europe and elsewhere. They realise that this is where the growth is."
But the downturn is also speeding up international restaurant brands’ expansion in China, he adds. Renowned French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten chose to open his first restaurant outside New York in Shanghai this year.
"There’s huge development in terms of restaurants and its only going to increase. Everybody is coming to China. And the number, and level, of properties opening up exceeds the talent available."
Even fast-food restaurants are contributing to growing demand for good wait staff, says Reich, who points to the way Yum Brands is developing its KFC and Pizza Hut chains in China.
"In China they’re much more of a high-end experience. They’re giving a higher level of service, building stores more around a sit-down, upscale environment than back home."
The government is perhaps hoping that a wave of new hospitality schools opening up will supply more trained workers to the sector. Florida International University has set up a large campus in Tianjin, with its first students graduating last year. Leading Swiss hospitality school Les Roches is also present in a venture with the JinJiang hotel chain in Shanghai.
At a meeting in Shanghai last year, Jean-Claude Baumgarten, president of the World Travel and Tourism Council warned that "China will need to recruit, train, retain and develop millions of people over the next ten years" to meet the projected growth in the tourism sector, including restaurants.
"This industry should be promoted to the younger generations as a highly regarded career opportunity," he said.
It may take a wholesale change in attitude toward the restaurant business before Western restaurants have a choice pick of talent in China.