New Orleans CityBusiness

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Haley Bitterman is working against the clock. The director of operations for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group hopes to have a management team in place at the former Brennan’s restaurant on Royal Street within the next couple of months so it can open by late summer.

“I wake up at three in the morning and worry about how we are going to find enough skilled staff to work in that restaurant,” Bitterman said.

Restaurateurs across the city report a scarcity of trained workers, those who typically hold a certificate or degree in their specialty area. From executive chefs to general managers, sous chefs and even experienced line cooks, the pickings are growing slimmer as the count of restaurants in the New Orleans area has eclipsed 1,400, according to dining critic Tom Fitzmorris.

Exacerbating the problem is that the local programs that help supply the talent pool are reaching their own limits, with training facilities and enrollment numbers far from what’s needed to meet demand.

Bitterman said Ralph Brennan’s in-house management training program is helping provide some of the leadership she will need for the yet-to-be-renamed restaurant at 417 Royal St., where renovations have been taking place since last September. For example, one employee will be promoted from Red Fish Grill, but she doesn’t want to “strip a restaurant of all its talent.”

“There isn’t a chef that I’ve talked to that isn’t saying they’re hurting for talent,” Bitterman said.

Her company rewards employees with “bounties” for referrals that result in successful hires, encouraging them to spread the word about the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group and its employee benefits.

Chris Rodrigue, CEO of Taste Buds Management, which includes the Zea Rotisserie & Grill chain, also counts on the company’s reputation to lure and retain employees, noting it has crafted a health insurance plan _ considered a rarity in the restaurant industry pre-Obamacare.

Taste Buds isn’t “in any better or worse shape” compared with its competition when it comes to finding experienced employees, he said, noting that the company prefers to promote from within and groom its managers through “assimilation” rather than looking to outside sources.

The College of Business at the University of New Orleans is trying to address the demand through its School of Hospitality, Restaurant and Tourism Administration. Dean and HRT Director John A. Williams boasts that the school has placed 100 percent of its graduate students in all disciplines in jobs and has numbers approaching that level for undergraduates.

“We are truly maxed,” he said.

But as enrollment declines at UNO, Williams is hard pressed to find enough students to supply the restaurant industry’s needs. For the fall semester, the university reported 7,144 undergraduate and 2,179 graduate students _ numbers that have been falling since 2009 and are far from the total count exceeding 17,000 before Hurricane Katrina.

Williams said the HRT program will increase its recruitment of out-of-state students while continuing to build on its “2+2” program with Delgado Community College, which allows DCC graduates to continue seamlessly toward a four-year degree at UNO.

At Delgado, Vance Roux reports the Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management program he directs is “maxed out” at 140 students, with nearly all of them placed in apprenticeships that will result in full-time jobs. The college’s training space is also cramped, which has Roux looking forward to the opening of the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute.

Delgado is the primary educational partner in the conversion of the former ArtWorks facility near Lee Circle and will move its culinary school downtown. Roux anticipates being able to enroll up to 500 students once the institute is established.

In the meantime, he is preparing students to make the jump from skilled line cook to management level positions based on what he hears from the restaurant industry.

“They basically want people trained at all levels,” Roux said.

Williams at UNO expects the demand to only grow, noting that the supply of “multi-skilled” employees who filled several gaps at restaurants immediately after Hurricane Katrina has been stretched to its capacity. Many have gone on to manage or open their own restaurants.

Rodrigue with Taste Buds sees underlying issues at the heart of the industry’s employment pinch. First, he said most hospitality management training programs emphasize the hotel industry, and those that are culinary driven tend to steer students to chef-led training. He would like to see business schools direct more of their internship candidates to restaurants.

The average restaurant manager makes significantly more than the average manager at a hotel, he said, and it takes “a fraction of the time” for a restaurant employee to get to that level.

Rodrigue said that Taste Buds intends to strengthen its relationship with UNO and let its students know about the opportunities that await them.

“The message I want to bring is: Change your attitude about restaurants.”