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Among local restaurateurs, there’s a sacred code: Don’t walk into another operator’s restaurant and try to steal the staff.

But these are desperate times. In recent months, poaching has become more frequent and more aggressive. Passion Food Hospitality co-owner Gus DiMillo says it’s become all too common to see managers of other restaurants come into his eateries, which include DC Coast, Acadiana, and District Commons, and offer his waiters and managers jobs. Competitors will also call chefs and other employees while they’re working and attempt to lure them away.

“That’s not cool at all,” DiMillo says. “I would never do something like that, and I think it’s inexcusable.”

Behind the cutthroat tactics is a situation that alarms management even more: The District doesn’t have enough experienced restaurant staffers. With unemployment in D.C. at 8.5 percent, there are plenty of applicants for job openings, but veteran servers, managers, and cooks are in short supply. That’s been true for a while, but as dozens of new restaurants have opened in recent months, restaurateurs say the labor market is the tightest they’ve ever seen. Things are particularly bad for independent upscale dining establishments that turn out complicated menus with the expectation of a high level of service, but even casual spots are having a tough time filling openings. The results for the diner, if restaurants don’t step up their training? Amateur service and cooking.

Chef and restaurateur Jeff Tunks, DiMillo’s business partner, says finding staff for Passion Food Hospitality is the hardest part of his job right now. Just take a look at Craigslist to see the demand across the region: There are often more than 100 new hospitality job postings each day.

Tunks says he’s been forced to close sections of the dining room at Clarendon’s Fuego Cocina y Tequileria on certain days because he didn’t have enough servers trained. The lack of staff is also why Foggy Bottom’s District Commons never opened for breakfast as it initially intended to do.

“We’re sort of handcuffed a little bit,” Tunks says. “You never want to turn away business, but you also have to make sure that they’re getting good service. You just can’t open the floodgates.” That can translate to lost revenue for the restaurant.

Tunks says he’s had servers leave for a hot new restaurant to take advantage of the swarm of diners, then return several weeks later to ask for their jobs back. “We don’t have the luxury to say, ‘Hey, you’ve made your bed, go lay in it,’” Tunks says. If they’re good, he’ll hire them back.

Meanwhile, Black Restaurant Group owner Jeff Black says the shortage has meant he’s had to pay existing staff more for overtime. Not only is that bad for the bottom line, Black says, but “you’re paying someone who’s tired to work extra.” He’s had days where he’s so short-staffed that managers have to wait tables, and sometimes he now gives servers extra money to come in during less desirable shifts.

Tunks says that about a month ago, he began offering a $500 bounty to anyone who referred a manager his group ended up hiring. Meanwhile, several restaurateurs say they’ve started advertising mid- to top-level positions in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston in order to attract the right resumes. Many others have started to use headhunters, who typically charge a one-time fee of about 10 percent of the employee’s starting salary.

“My phone doesn’t stop ringing,” says one local restaurant headhunter, Chris Floyd, whose recruiting agency Capital Restaurant Resources works with Think Food Group, Passion Food Hospitality, Matchbox Food Group, Kimpton Hotel Group, and others. “We don’t spend time anymore trying to find new clients.”

This is all great news for job seekers. “It really is an employee’s market,” says Floyd. He says it’s not uncommon for a great sous chef or an assistant manager—two of the most in-demand positions—to have seven to 10 offers. (Salaries for such positions typically range from $40,000 to $50,000.) Less experienced people can also advance more easily now. Floyd says most restaurants prefer sous chefs or assistant managers to have at least two to four years experience. Now they’re settling for people with as little as six months.

It’s also getting easier for servers to get hired. “It’s pretty simple,” says Daikaya server Holly Barzyk, who’s also worked at Minibar and Rogue 24. “I’ve known people that have never worked in a restaurant before and were getting jobs at really good restaurants. The sad thing is: Are these people getting trained properly?”

Daikaya general manager James Horn was in charge of front-of-house staffing at the new Japanese spot in Chinatown and oversaw employees at Graffiato and Bandolero before that. He says the “classic way” to hire when you open a restaurant is to overstaff, with the expectation that half of your employees will turn over within three months. But at Daikaya, he tried a different approach. “We took so long in our interview process. We were very picky about it, and it was very tough.” Horn says. “It was scary, because you run so lean, and you risk not having someone on the floor.”

But Black says that you sometimes can’t afford to hesitate on a hire: “If he’s a dog, if he’s a piece of crap, if he’s a child molester, whatever, we’ll figure it out and we’ll get rid of him the first week. We need bodies. We need people that want to wait on tables.”

So, what does this mean for diners?

Restaurateurs are (unsurprisingly) reluctant to say that their service or food quality suffers as a result of the short supply of skilled waiters or cooks. Instead, they argue they make up for the lack of experience with more training. But that’s not to say they don’t notice problems at other establishments as a result of the staffing shortage.

Undisputed is the fact that restaurants are hiring younger and greener people based more on attitude and personality than resume. “In order to hire and do well right now, you need to give people a chance a lot more than you used to,” says Horn. “You spent some time at a summer camp interacting with people? You worked at Abercrombie selling clothes? And you were a cashier at a Subway?” Hired.

At the same time, diners now expect more from servers. It’s not enough just to take orders; the staff has to know how a dish is made. Is the pork local? Is there dairy in it? And what wine will pair best?

Taylor Gourmet co-owner Casey Patten says the hoagie shop started feeling the labor pinch about eight months ago while searching for good cooks and assistant managers. It ended up hiring David Hahn, previously a top gun in the training department of Chipotle’s corporate office, to step up training that would allow Taylor to promote more people from within rather than from a pile of Craigslist applicants. Now, a cashier goes through five days of training, up from two. And whereas ongoing training used to slow down the longer an employee stayed on, now it just continues, Patten says.

High-end spots have it hardest of all. Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck owner Robert Wiedmaier says that as dining as a whole has gotten more casual, there are fewer fine-dining training grounds. That not only means fewer servers who know which wine pairs with a grilled piece of foie gras, but also fewer cooks who know how to make a boudin or saucisson. Wiedmaier says his line cooks used to be in their 30s or 40s. These days, they’re 18 to 24. “Now, it’s just young kids, and they’ve got major dues to pay,” he says.

Wiedmaier says he’s had to adjust his menus to match his kitchen staff’s capabilities. “If you know that you’ve got a very inexperienced staff, that means you put on dishes that could still be great dishes, but maybe not as complicated,” he says. “You might not put a bone marrow flan on, because it’s got to be just perfectly delicate.”

Wiedmaier says his style of managing the kitchen staff has totally changed as well. These days, you can’t pull a Gordon Ramsey if you want to keep people on board. “It used to be that I’d walk into the kitchen, snap my apron, and let’s rock and roll. I would yell and scream all night,” Wiedmaier says. “And I’d have 10 cooks banging at the back door wanting a job.”

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Photo by Darrow Montgomery