Bailing Out- Reasons for High Kitchen Turnover that AREN’T a Bigger Paycheck

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

I have long since accepted that the only folks who can really appreciate the difference between kitchen work and other careers (or even other service industry careers) is people who have worked them.

There are a number of factors at work in a professional kitchen setting that “traditional” career advice simply does not apply easily to.

Advice like:

  • “If this job isn’t working out, why don’t you just quit?”
  • Why can’t you move to another part of the kitchen?”
  • “[Staffing problem] isn’t your concern- don’t worry about it.”

In addition, the rate of turnover in service industry jobs is historically higher. Whereas an ordinary white-collar position can expect a shelf-life of about two years on a given employee, kitchens regularly see a given position get filled again after anywhere between 6 and 18 months.

Depending on your goals in the industry, a series of short stints can either be seen as expected or career suicide- no one wants to hire someone with an admitted track-record of being a short-timer. In the kitchen, a series of two-year stints is nearly “Unicorn” level of rare and desirable.

This being said, if someone quits a position in the kitchen, they aren’t doing it randomly. ESPECIALLY if only after a few months.

Animated reaction Gif of an octopus scuttling across the sea floor going "nope nope nope"

When employers get asked about why their turnover rate is so high, the answers distill down to the usual three gripes:

  1. “Kids today just don’t want to work or pay their dues.”
  2. They want more money for less work.”
  3. “Some people just can’t hack it. Kids today are too soft.”
Animated GIF of Robert Downey Jr. rolling his eyes in annoyance
Oh, that last one especially…

Given that the first and third gripes are provably a pile of bullshit, the only one that actually got a lot of attention for a long time is the second- “People want more money.”

Now, this one is not wrong, exactly. I could discuss things like the business models of different restaurants, what constitutes a “living wage,” and the exact definition of “unskilled labor” till my eyes bled. I don’t want to get blood all over my computer, however- and I can guarantee there are other folks you could be reading who are far more versed in economic theory than me.

Instead, I’ll sum up my reason for writing this post:

IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT THE MONEY.

Seriously. NO ONE takes a job in the kitchen because they want to get rich.


Do they enjoy what they do and want to advance their careers? Yes.

Do they want to maintain a comfortable standard of living? Absolutely yes.

Do they want to receive pay in accordance with their increasing skill and value? Damn straight. If you can’t afford to pay your employees a fair wage commensurate to their skill and value, you are literally running a failing business.

But… do these employees join the kitchen because they want to “earn the big bucks?”

Animated GIF of two men doubled over laughing

If an employee is leaving a job suddenly- or if you are dealing with a mass exodus of employees- you can be pretty sure the answer isn’t as simple as “wheel out the money cannon.”

What can cause employees- especially GOOD ones- to leave en masse?

1. Culture Problems

Animated GIF of creepy Elmo doll and a burning background

No workplace is perfect. A kitchen has its own tempo and character, and not everyone is going to be able to jive with it. But just like that one friend who seems to have an apocalyptic break-up with a new partner every few months, at some point you need to look at the common denominator and wonder if it could be something about the way your do business?

  • Do your employees feel supported/listened to?
  • Do you take employee complaints seriously?
  • Are problem employees dealt with and good employees enabled?
  • Are you fostering a toxic work environment (through action OR inaction?)

The culture of a business is felt on every level, but it is always informed from the top. If good people are willing to possibly take a hit in pay or delay their careers to leave your company, there is probably something you should do about your company.

2. Ambition

A young man with a thin beard and a blue business suit adjusting his necktie
Photo by Minervastudio on Pexels.com

Your good employees are good for a reason. They work hard, improve their skills, and take the problems and challenges your business faces on the chin. How are you recognizing that? Raises are swell, but again- money isn’t the only motivator. People working that hard have goals and dreams. They want to expand their skill set and climb higher in their career. If they feel like they are “stalling out” in your company, no paycheck will be enough to keep them in place forever.

  • How are promotions handled? Is there a reason employees would want to advance in your business (besides the chunkier paycheck?) If all your promotions are based on “dead man’s boots” (waiting for a higher slot to be vacated,) why should your employees wait around for a higher-up to quit?
  • Who ARE your good employees? What are their goals/dreams? Can you help them achieve them and keep them under your roof?
  • Failing all else, can you offer them stability from which to pursue their goals? They may still leave, but they might last longer because they think of you favorably.

3. Physical/ Mental Stresses

Animated GIF from American Horror Story of a man suddenly passing out and falling face down on a carpeted floor.

The kitchen life is ridiculously demanding. Part of the toxic kitchen culture that haunts our industry is based on masochism– “who can carry harder, even when sick?” “Who comes in, no matter what?” “Which cook works the best with a hangover and about 1 hours sleep?” We’re all getting older, and it’s not uncommon to hear seasoned employees who actually enjoy their job say “This is a young man’s game. I don’t make enough to put my body through this.”

You might have piqued a bit on that line, but remember- no amount of money is worth your health. If your employees feel like the conditions in your company are hazardous to their health and taking a physical toll, they wouldn be doing themselves a favor by quitting. Take this stuff seriously, and beyond reducing turnover, it might also help keep your worker’s comp costs low.

  • Are you checking in with your employees regularly? Are they taking breaks?
  • Does your culture allow for people to call out sick? Can you staff to account for it?
  • Not every business can afford to give its employees health benefits- but is there something you CAN do to give your staff support?
  • Do your employees feel like they can talk to you about their experiences without risking their job/feeling belittled?

4. Emotional Strains

Animated GIF from Twin Peaks with a young woman sobbing

The drain isn’t just physical and mental. Kitchen work necessarily involves doing complex work in tight quarters with the same people for an extended period of time. The schedule is almost always at odds with the rest of the world, so kitchen workers often only associate with their fellow kitchen workers. This divide and the schedule can often put your employees at odds with friends, loved ones, external hobbies- in other words, all the things that help them relax and enjoy life.

We weren’t born just to work, pay bills, and die. If your employees feel like they are killing themselves to make a living- but not live their lives- they have nothing to lose by working elsewhere.

  • What do your employees do for fun? Can you encourage/connect to their other interests and hobbies?
  • How is Paid Time Off structured in your company? Are employees encouraged to take advantage of it?
  • Do your employees know that mental health days are a thing? Can they use sick time for them?
  • You already keep track of your employees hours for labor costs… are any of them overworking where it’s not needed? Overwork is a form of self-harm. Can you offer solutions to take the pressure off?

What do you think? What are some reasons YOU left jobs that weren’t “about the money?” Drop them in the comments!

Stay Classy,

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