Saturday, March 08, 2014

Your English Major Kids May End Up Serving Tables In Chicago

I live in the River North area of Chicago, which is full of restaurants of every type and description.  There is also intense competition among many of the smaller restaurant groups, since apparently some level of scale (5+ or more restaurants) is helpful and these restaurants tend to have very high levels of food quality and service, based on my experience.

When you interact with the bar staff, hostess, and server you can usually tell if you are working with someone who is "going through the motions" or someone "who is good at their job".  There are many subtle details that are much larger than "getting your order right" - they include knowledge about the food and presentation, recommendations based upon your input, and generally anticipating needs and solving problems without having to be prompted many times.

Recently I've come to the preliminary conclusion that many of the waitresses and servers in these higher end restaurant groups must have gone to college and are well educated.  When you talk with them they are very sharp and quick and they seem to have the type of drive or energy that could make them successful in a variety of careers.  I would never ask them directly because that's none of my business and it could embarrass them.

This article form Bloomberg titled "College Graduates Taking Low Wage Jobs Displace Less Educated" confirms at least my anecdotal impressions here in Chicago.
She got a job as a hostess at Blackbird, a One Off restaurant, while pursuing a bachelor's degree in Germanic studies and communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1999.  “The formality of classes, papers and grades did lend a hand in where I am today because I had a broader sense of cultures, interactions and interpersonal skills,” said Galban, who is now also a partner at the restaurant Nico Osteria, one of seven Chicago restaurants managed by One Off.  Of the company’s more than 700 employees, more than 60 percent hold college degrees or higher, yet fewer than 10 positions require a degree, Galban said.
The willingness of college educated adults to take on these jobs will likely cause at least three side effects, one of which was the "main" topic of the Bloomberg article I linked to above:
  1. These restaurants will be more competitive than typical restaurants, because the higher educated and higher skilled workers will drive customer satisfaction and drive efficiencies within the food and drink serving processes.  As these workers move "up the chain" at the restaurants, they will also offer career paths for other college degree holders as well
  2. Less-skilled workers will have less opportunities because they won't be able to compete with these individuals.  It would be a simple "screen" to give preference to individuals with a degree who apply for jobs, even if it isn't a requirement of the job.  In the past the assumption was that someone "over-qualified" would work at your restaurant or business, they would leave immediately when a new opportunity arises, but in today's stagnant economy (especially in Illinois) there don't seem to be a lot of opportunities for them to "jump to".  
  3. Since the cost of higher education is so high today, parents need to think of how they will feel when their liberal arts (or lackadaisical business degree) holding children are potentially serving them in a restaurant, and if this is worth the vast expense and financial impact of the degree that they are seeking
Another side effect to consider is that these restaurants are not just randomly seeking out applicants from the pool.  Their employees are not only young, they are disproportionally above-average looking. Perhaps if you aren't college educated you can make up for it in attractiveness.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz


Gerry from Valpo said...

In your experience at the trendier spots did you notice the many well educated servers who have tackle boxes sticking out of their faces, stretched out ear lobes so large you could putt a golf ball through and tattoos traveling up their arms all the way to their face?

I have and depending on how severe their self-inflicted mutilation is it ruins whatever appetite I walked in with.

Carl from Chicago said...

I think if you come now there are a few schools of thought on this.

Some of the "edgier" places are hiring people with edgy looks like that.

The Lettuce Entertainment and Rockit and Gilt bar groups tend to have more wholesome looking staff and I see less of that nowadays.

I am only speculating but bet that was the "first wave" of college educated kids with art majors and their experimentation at hiring people like that. Now that they can get pretty much any type of major I think that they are getting a wider range of college educated people and less of the ones with the freakier looks.

Probably those guys are working in Pilsen and more up and coming edgier neighborhoods and not River North which is as gentrified as it gets.