“We’re Just Like a Family”- and 6 Other Red Flags When Looking for a Kitchen Job

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!

As summer comes to an end, it’s “back to school” for students everywhere. Some culinary students will be starting their descent into madness/ meteoric rise to glory (same thing, really.) Others will be entering their final year- the culmination of years of struggle, sweat, screaming, and WAY too much spent on textbooks.

It will also, at last, be time to look for an externship. Most culinary schools in America don’t expect their students to have any kitchen experience before enrolling. Many European schools do- or in fact, require a letter of recommendation from a chef.

In America, then, the externship is the first time many students will enter the culinary world. It’s a part of the curriculum, and a requirement for graduation- “You paid for four years of us harrowing and lecturing you- time to show you’re worth a damn.”

Animated Gif from Creed

Imagine if your labor for four years hinged on you being able to find a job, in the summer, in a brutal industry, with the job market flooding at exactly the same time you are applying- because all your classmates are doing the same damn thing.

Unless you have previous experience, an existing job/ job offer, or an “in” with a business… most students will be thrilled to take what they can get. They aren’t the only ones aware of this- many restaurant owners are thrilled for the surge of cheap labor they can get out of students in exchange for lower pay (no experience, remember?) and a little extra paperwork.

Before you go chasing after the first “yes” you get, though- it’s worth it to do your research. Show up anywhere you want to work as a customer first (if possible) and pay attention. Check out sites like Glassdoor and scour for the accounts of current/former employees, and figure out the just how healthy that horse is before you hitch your wagon to it.

A good place will inspire you to create. A bad place might too, but it might also break your heart on the industry before you even begin. You’re your own best judge for how a restaurant may feel for you- but in my experience, there are a few warning signs that a kitchen may be worth passing up for a better fit.

1. “We’re Just Like A Family.”

GIF- Arrested Development Family

Everyone wants to feel like they belong and have a tribe. We’re social creatures- it’s to be expected. Spending a minimum of 40 hours a week with the same people creates a common purpose and connection.

Tragically, some employers will take advantage of this. They will use an employee’s natural emotional attachment to “put the screws on them-” exploiting their goodwill and desire for community to get away with abusive behavior. If I go into an interview, ask “what’s it like to work here”, and hear those words- I make for the exit. I have friends and family that WON’T lean on me to trim hours with a heavier task list “for the good of the team”, thanks.

2. When Were They Last Serviced?

Animated GIF from Adventure Time with BMO showing his backside

When you think about it, appliances and machines are the best employees in a given business. After you pay it off, a freezer or oven works for free. No vacation, no sick days, no drama, no whining, no troubles. All they need is to be kept healthy and maintained.

So if you walk into a restaurant, look at how their machines are maintained. Are they in good order? Are they clean? If not, think of it this way: “This is how they treat their “best employees” who don’t complain. How will they treat ME?”

Employees aren’t liabilities. They are investments– a part of a business meant to make more money. If the machinery is gross, in obvious disrepair, or seems to have a few too many “system D” tweaks going on… start wondering how they’ll handle their other investments.

3. How Do Employees Act/ Talk?

Animated GIF from Clerks

Sites like Glassdoor and all are great, but I suggest reaching out to employees outside of the management track- or listen to them as they work. This is why showing up to a business as a customer first will be beneficial- what’s life like on the front lines of the business? What are they complaining about? What’s making them frustrated? You might be one of them someday- keep your ear to the ground.

Don’t listen or look so much at general complaints, or personal ones- “my feet hurt,” “work is hard,” “I don’t make enough” etc. Look and listen for specific problems- “This POS system is buggy.” “Oh hell, is the freezer busted again?”

Not hearing anything as a customer is not necessarily a good sign, but it’s also not necessarily a bad one. Employees may be upset, but may either be not upset enough (or too nervous) to discuss their employers in earshot.

4. Expect a Stage/ Working Interview- Ask for one if not.

There are only two reasons a restaurant would want to hire someone without giving them a working interview, and neither of them are good:

  1. They don’t have the training/hiring budget to do one.
  2. They need bodies in the kitchen ASAP, and aren’t picky about who.

Remember, you are evaluating them as much as they are evaluating you. Everyone deserves a chance to see what the other party is like/ what they can do. The only reason a kitchen would give up this opportunity is if they hope you are as desperate as they are, and they are willing to ignore skill or ability in exchange for someone who has a pulse and can pass a drug test.

5. Free Beer/ Food/ Staff Days.

Animated GIF from Spirited Away of No Face giving away gold

Fun stuff is fun! Everyone loves perks and little pleasures at work. But last I checked, the electric company doesn’t take “all the bagels you can eat,” and health insurance costs a bit more than “free beer Friday.”

If this stuff is being pushed in a job ad (see also, “listen to your own music!” “No uniforms!”) look closely at the actual pay and benefits- this might be a “bread and circuses” situation, where they are hoping that you’ll ignore the fact they are paying you less than you are worth in exchange for a “fun” workplace.

Fun is fun… and work is work. You can enjoy yourself at work, but it’s work all the same. They need to pay you to be there- don’t forget it.

6. Repeated Job Postings from the Same Place

Animated GIF of Charlie Chaplin caught in a revolving door

Hey, this place is hiring a baker! Wait… weren’t they looking for a baker last month?… And the month before that?… And a couple months before that?” The internet is a powerful organ for a job hunter- not just because of speed and access, but because you can see how regularly a business is looking for new people.

“Turnover” is the term for the shelf-life of an employee- how often a business needs to hire new staff. Lower is better- it means more people stick around a place longer. High turnover means a lot of things- potentially bad working conditions, bad hiring practices, and bad management among the big ones. It might also mean that- if you sign on and try to stick it out- the people training you may not have been there very long, or if they were, they might be jaded and annoyed from endlessly training people that don’t last.

For millennials, the average time spent with a given employer is about two years. Restaurants, unusual for them, fall within this range. No employer will admit their turnover rate during an interview, so it’s up to you to pay attention.

7. “Something Wicked This Way Comes”- Trust Your Gut

If you are talking to the manager or walking through the kitchen, and something just feels “off…” leave. That won’t change after you are hired, and you WON’T get used to it.

Your gut is an early warning system, and it knows what’s good for you. This is another reason to ask for a stage- so you can get a better feel for the conditions. No, it’s not just nerves, or “caught them on a rough day.” You can FEEL when a day is unusual… and when it’s a normal day in a badly-run business.

Don’t question your gut. If something feels wrong from the get-go, just smile, say “thank you for the opportunity,” and make for the exit.

Anything I missed? Too harsh? Drop it in the comments!

Stay Classy,

The BHB's Top Hat Signature Logo

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