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People have flocked back to restaurants in the nation’s capital as the COVID pandemic eases — but not to work as cooks. And restaurant owners say that’s making it harder to keep their doors open as tourists return to Washington’s monuments and museums.

About 59% of D.C.-area restaurateurs say they do not have enough kitchen employees to support existing customer demand, according to the most recent member survey from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. They ranked staffing among their top concerns alongside rising labor costs, inflation and gun violence.

“We’ve lost some critical pipelines for training and cultivating the next generation of both front-of-house and back-of-house employees and managers and operators are often filling this gap by training on the job,” Julie Sproesser, RAMW’s managing director, told The Washington Times.

Restaurant owners say word-of-mouth about low pay, unpleasant managers and limited growth opportunities have led many cooks who quit during early pandemic shutdowns to start new careers as Uber drivers and TSA workers. And the industry’s reputation for 60- to 80-hour workweeks without annual salary increases has depressed enrollment in the culinary schools that supply replacements.

Stratford University, which operated a culinary school in Falls Church, Virginia, closed in December and filed for bankruptcy last month. That followed the 2018 closure of L’Academie de Cuisine, a cooking school in Gaithersburg, Maryland, that also shuttered due to insufficient enrollment.

Ms. Sproesser said RAMW is working to fill the gap through local partnerships, training programs, a high school culinary and hospitality training program and community-based training organizations.

“If we could wave a magic wand to fix this problem, we would, as would many across the country, but it will take time to build our workforce back up,” she said.

Capitol Hill-based Sunnyside Restaurant Group owns 13 Good Stuff Eatery, Santa Rosa Taqueria and We, The Pizza locations primarily situated in Maryland, Virginia and the District. Sunnyside owner Micheline Mendelsohn said the food production lines at her Good Stuff Eatery locations are currently operating with five cooks each, well below the usual eight or nine.

To cope with the reality that 40% of customers now dine indoors, her eateries have reworked menus to reduce prep time and installed computers to speed up service, she said.

“We are guessing many people have moved away during COVID, found non restaurant jobs,” Ms. Mendelsohn said. “And there has been a grey cloud over the hospitality industry as of late.”

Culinary schools still operating in the area have reported sharp drops in the number of people training to work as cooks on kitchen lines.

“A lot of people don’t want to be a cook or chef anymore because the narrative is it’s hard and not fun, the pay is bad and people will yell at you,’” said Maria Kopsidas, the former personal chef for a Washington Nationals pitcher. “There’s a lot of unfair practices going on in restaurants and people are getting tired of it.”

Ms. Kopsidas, who founded the Metropolitan Culinary Arts Institute in 2014 in Arlington, Virginia, said her school’s graduation roll has fallen from 40 students a year before the pandemic to 20 a year today. The school’s 14-day program costs $15,500.

It’s also “gotten harder to keep people in one place” after placing her graduates in local jobs, Ms. Kopsidas said. The former chef said she is working with local restaurant owners to enforce a strict limit of work hours to 40 hours a week, provide full health insurance benefits, offer sick pay and be more flexible about allowing for paid time off.

“You have to acknowledge that people have lives and might get sick or need to take care of their family,” Ms. Kopsidas said. “Salaries in the D.C. area have not gone up since the 1990s. Executive chef makes $80,000-$140,000 a year, but that breaks down to about $16 an hour if they’re working 60-80 hours a week.”

Faris Ghareb, co-owner of Wilson’s Hardware in Arlington, said the contemporary American restaurant is one departure away from being short-staffed in the kitchen.

And while it used to take a few days or a week to replace a cook before the pandemic, he said it now takes months. That’s why he’s working hard to keep his current cooks, he added.

“It was just a much easier process before the pandemic because you could always get referrals from your employees,” Mr. Ghareb said. “Now that’s not happening. There aren’t tons of qualified people looking for these sorts of jobs anymore and yet there’s a lot of demand.”

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