‘A waiter isn’t considered a profession in our society’

Why restaurants and hotels feel a deficit of staff and where talented waiters go

‘A waiter isn’t considered a profession in our society’
Photo: Maxim Platonov

Restaurants and hotels are opening in Kazan like mushrooms after the rain. Though the pandemic slowed down the development of the HoReCa business but didn’t stop it. And it is good: competition in the market is constantly growing, the city is getting new interesting places and concepts. But the sector stumbles over a big problem: there is a shortage of smart, qualified staff. A personnel deficit is seen in all positions. If we take the restaurant business, there is a lack of waiters, good cooks, strong managers. In a column for Realnoe Vremya, Roman Butuzov, a restaurateur, co-founder of Mama Feta restaurant and Culture restaurant bar, talks about staff problems in the sector, their causes and solutions to them.

Universities don’t teach what happens in practice

A colossal gap between theory and practice in educational establishments where specialists are trained is one of the key staff problems of our sector. This applies to both colleges that prepare waiters and cooks and institutes where top managers are taught. People who give students classes often have never seen the restaurant business in practice, which means they can neither explain nor show this work.

And if there are some accelerated training programmes for waiters with immersion in work, university students who study to become executives and managers find it tougher. They have an old training base, they are taught the concept of the restaurant that hasn’t changed since the 1990s. Technologies, formats, developments have changed a long time ago, and would-be managers should study this, not a spherical old restaurant in a vacuum.

It is necessary to update training bases, work on them. And those who teach in universities should exist in reality, not have their head in the clouds of history.

In the end, a person passes theory, comes to a restaurant for practice and suddenly sees that there is nothing similar to what he was taught here. Because the digital era provides as fast development as possible, while the institute’s base hardly updates.

A colossal gap between theory and practice in educational establishments where specialists are trained is one of the key staff problems of our sector

I think those who make up educational plans should directly solve this problem. Universities and colleges should offer associations of hoteliers and restaurants to work in collaboration. Otherwise, no institute, no college will be able to create a working, truly topical educational programme.

Even though smart, strong managers are invited to give students one-time lectures so that they will explain what happens in a real restaurant or hotel, discuss some cases, it will already be a huge benefit. A smart practitioner will be able to interestingly present information divided into blocks and full of practical, valuable, useful information. It will be compelling, it will be remembered, and precisely this will bring practical knowledge. And not Soviet lectures on economics during which all students nap.

I think it is vitally important for educational establishments to accept this collaboration, moreover, initiate it. If not, they give the market useless “specialists” who aren’t adapted to the market.

Before you start asking me questions, I say in the beginning that I will be ready, for instance, send my chef to a culinary college to give students a series of classes. Though as a restaurateur, a businessman I will sacrifice my chef’s time, I will win twice here. Firstly, I will promote the chef’s personal brand, secondly, during the classes, he can find several good students so that they can come to us for practice or internship. So the staff problem can be solved to a certain degree.

Even though smart, strong managers are invited to give students one-time lectures so that they will explain what happens in a real restaurant or hotel, discuss some cases, it will already be a huge benefit

And this refers to other spheres of activity of a restaurant or hotel. Why can’t our academia, the Ministry of Education and Science meet with professional associations and set up this scheme of collaboration between theory and practice?

As far as I am concerned, a similar project develops in Krasnodar. Within WorldSkills, local educational establishments offer restaurateurs to provide them with managers who teach. Because students will receive information they will need more than what is taught now in the institute even if it is a lecture or another type of communication. What do we need hospitality institutes in the country for in general?

“Every big company has its own internal university”

The second way of solving educational problems that isn’t related to practice is to develop commercial schools and courses, not universities and colleges. And it is good, and one can really receive good training there. Because the market’s practitioners open and offer them. So the domestic HoReCa market started to solve its staff problems itself. But there are two problems.

Firstly, such schools and courses are designed for people who already have some work experience in this sector and, preferably, education. For instance, to successfully pass the module Restaurant Management, you must, firstly, know at least economics, secondly, have an idea of how a restaurant works inside by having worked in an analogous position or at least as a manager. The same happens to chef schools. They are designed for people who know the basics that a culinary college offers (however, here it is simpler).

This is why it is perhaps enough for a restaurant to do courses and go to an interview only with a diploma, but it can be little without a diploma on higher education for another restaurant. HR managers of big restaurant and hotel chains have to make sure that a person won’t have to be taught the basics: why we need marketing and how the enterprise’s economics works.

HR managers of big restaurant and hotel chains have to make sure that a person won’t have to be taught the basics: why we need marketing and how the enterprise’s economics works

Secondly, education in a commercial school costs huge money. Even though a manager accumulated this money and did the training, it is necessary to practise the skills. And it is good if he studied not being far from the workplace (better at the restaurant’s expense). What if it was a “creative gap” for self-development?

Of course, ideally, the employer himself wants constant development. I think it is certainly necessary to refer employees to commercial courses and internships so that they will learn new things and adopt the latest experience. In this sense, the existence of commercial schools and educational programmes somehow fixes the situation, and it is necessary to develop this area simultaneously with the invitation of practitioners to state educational establishments.

Big chain establishments have a separate story about the staff. Chains develop internal standards of the company (moreover, approximately 95% of the standards are identical). Every big company has its own internal university all employees from the line personnel to the executive go through. So they want you to come to the chain’s restaurant both in Krasnodar and Yekaterinburg and receive the same service standards and approximately the same menu. And corporate universities are another, a third way of solving problems with insufficient qualification of staff for the sector. All serious companies bring up personnel for themselves. Alternatively, how did so many renowned names, so many famous chefs appear in our country? Somebody invested in them, and it certainly was not the Ministry of Education and Science.

All serious companies bring up personnel for themselves. Alternatively, how did so many renowned names, so many famous chefs appear in our country? Somebody invested in them, and it certainly was not the Ministry of Education and Science

“Why do I need a chef whom I won’t let develop?”

We are getting closer to widespread prejudice: many managers don’t develop their staff, prefer not to train them additionally and bring up “stars” in their establishment. Moreover, they do it consciously for a simple reason: “I will invest money and effort in him, while he will outgrow my establishment and go to work for my rivals or become my rival himself.”

And this widespread paradigm also impedes normal staff development in the sector.

But if we think it over, constant development inside a restaurant or hotel is a must. It is necessary to invest money in employees’ training. It is necessary to spend time and money on it, and then not only the staff competition rises but also the restaurateur receives a notable financial result. Even though, let’s say, your chef will go to another establishment in a few years, he will show yours and say: “I was created there.” It is interesting for a modern dynamic restaurateur to work with a developing market situation that doesn’t have personnel stagnation. Why do I need a chef whom I won’t let develop?

And to keep a person in the workplace, it is necessary to give him what you need from him. By investing in the team, I get a team that follows me. This applies to a financial reward too. If the administrator asks me to raise his salary within reasonable limits, I do it. The thing is that the time I will spend to train a new worker and clients who will dislike the service will cost me more.

And this is how strong, powerful specialists of the market who will consequently teach their subs should grow up inside establishments. And to keep the stagnating personnel to simply have the vacancies occupied means consequently to have insufficiently qualified staff and fall out of the competitive race.

By investing in the team, I get a team that follows me. This applies to a financial reward too

“A waiter isn’t considered a serious profession in our country”

There is another important moment, which is by the way characteristic mainly only of our country. A waiter isn’t considered a profession in Russia. In the majority’s consciousness, it is some transient state when somebody doesn’t have money or is studying, like a taxi driver. Meanwhile, in Europe, it is a completely normal situation when a middle-aged waiter with excellent training and great education works in a restaurant. For us, this looks like nonsense at the moment. Students become waiters in Russia. Several years pass, they receive a diploma, for instance, as a lawyer and go to work as a lawyer’s assistant. By the way, they go to work for much less money.

The lowest salary of an average waiter in Kazan is 50,000 rubles (the fixed rate is 20-25,000 rubles, plus, he earns at least the same amount from tips). The same lawyer’s assistant earns around twice less.

So why do they go? Young people don’t want to work as waiters all their life because it is not prestigious, society doesn’t consider this work as work but a way to slum it. It is also a kind of paradigm that can and must be shifted. Clearly, this will take at least 7-10 years even if we start working on it deliberately. At the same time, I think that the profession’s prestige needs to be raised, including by bringing up high professionals in this sector. Otherwise, our market will keep temporarily seeing an inflow of potential waiters in summer (and before letting them service the tables, they need to be trained for no less than a month) and a sudden outflow with the start of the academic year. While competent specialists will anyway go to other, more “correct” and prestigious spheres.

Young people don’t want to work as waiters all their life because it is not prestigious, society doesn’t consider this work as work but a way to slum it. It is also a kind of paradigm that can and must be shifted

There is another paradox characteristic of our country. If a young man doesn’t want to work as a waiter all his life, he has an opportunity for growing inside this sphere: to become a manager, then the administrator’s assistant and administrator with time. And here we come across an interesting phenomenon: a restaurant manager’s average salary in Kazan is from 35,000 rubles. Will you find a lot of people wishing to dramatically change the amount of salary without becoming prestigious lawyers but becoming a restaurant manager? Their number is very small. Last year, I supervised 40 waiters. I promoted two of them to managers. Only one of them has still been working.

It is hard to change an idea, it is hard to get used to, hard to consciously reduce the wage. But the main question here is how a person sees himself in the future. And he doesn’t see himself in the restaurant business, at first, it was just a way of temporarily earning his living.

Summary: practitioners should go to universities, while society should reconsider its attitude

Let’s sum up all we have said above. Even if the staff problem in the HoReCa sphere is serious, I see several ways of solving it.

  1. To bring teachers with real work experience in the sector to universities and colleges, reconsider educational plans and programmes together with them. It is necessary to reduce the gap between official educational programmes and real practice.
  2. To develop the system of corporate education — not only smart waiters but also managers, administrators and executives can be brought up in the workplace. One can spy on programmes of corporate universities of large restaurant and hotel chains — 95% of such programmes are identical.
  3. The sector can work itself to develop its skills: some educational programmes, schools can be created in associations. We already host contests, find the best workers, hold festivals — it is necessary to keep working on it because to recognise the best worker in a profession means to stimulate others to develop.
  4. A more global and long-term task is about public consciousness. It is time to stop considering waiters, taxi drivers, couriers, maids as temporary workers who don’t have a profession. And when this stereotype is remoulded, mass vertical development of specialists in the sector will become possible and it will be filled with sustainable staff traffic.

We should keep in mind that the restaurant business is a living organism that operates 24/7. A restaurant’s success depends only on the whole team in general, not a waiter or chef in particular. Here it is always important to keep up to date, stay tuned for trends in the market and invest in people and technologies.

By Roman Butuzov. Photo: Maksim Platonov
Tatarstan